Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli has identified Giorgi Trapaidze, the head of Georgian counterintelligence, as being personally among his abductors.
Nodar Meladzis Shabati, an investigative show on TV channel Pirveli, broke the story on 1 October.
After showing Mukhtarli images of three officials from the State Security Service (SSG) possibly involved in his kidnapping, Mukhtarli recognised Trapaidze as the driver of the car by which he was taken from Tbilisi.
Mukhtarli, a prominent critic of the Azerbaijani government, disappeared from Tbilisi on 29 May 2017, only to resurface in Azerbaijan where he was charged with smuggling money. Mukhtarli was freed from prison in March 2020 following international pressure.
Both Mukhtarli and a former deputy chief of the SSG have pointed the finger at ruling party founder Bidzina Ivanishvili and the current Interior Minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, Ivanishvili’s known confidant and his former personal security chief, for his abduction.
On 4 October, Soso (Ioseb) Gogashvili, who was a deputy head of the SSG at the time and is currently in pre-trial detention, gave a detailed account of what he described as a state-sanctioned and executed kidnapping of Mukhtarli.
In a Facebook message sent from prison, Gogashvili said he learned about Mukhtarli’s kidnapping personally from the then–boss of the SSG Head Vaghtang Gomelauri, on the day of the kidnapping.
Gogashvili recounted a conversation with Gomelauri, whom he described as irritated at the SSG’s then–Head of Counterintelligence, Otar Kuprashvili, for mishandling the task he had gave him: to abduct Afgan Mukhtarli in the Southern Georgian town of Marneuli, not in Tbilisi.
‘This dickhead kidnapped [him] from the city centre’, Gogashvili quoted Gomelauri as saying.
Mukhtarli has confirmed to OC Media that he recognised Trapaidze as one of his kidnappers.
‘After confirming the photo identified by the journalists, I went with my lawyer to the Prosecutor’s Office to make an official complaint. However, they told us that we will contact you after reviewing [Pirveli’s] journalistic investigation report’, Mukhtarli told OC Media.
Mukhtarli, who departed Georgia shortly after Gogashvili published his testimony on Facebook, also told OC Media that Georgian border police officers unexplainadly held him for questioning for over an hour as he attempted to board his flight at Tbilisi International Airport.
‘I think that I will go back to Tbilisi again and I will not give up the fight for the punishment of those involved in this whole affair’, Mukhtarli added.
‘A task from the boss’
In his Facebook post on 4 October, Soso Gogashvili cited Gomelauri as saying the ‘task’ to kidnap Mukhtarli was coming from the ‘boss’, which according to the ex-security official, was a reference to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party and Georgia’s former Prime Minister.
While he resigned from his post in November 2013 and quit politics for the second time in early 2021, critics have dubbed the Georgian billionaire as the country’s ‘informal ruler’, retaining his grip on Georgia’s institutions, including the law enforcement, judicial, and prosecutorial authorities.
Gogashvili claimed on 4 October that after Otar Kuprashvili and other kidnappers mishandled their mission, the SSG scrambled to track the route of their movement and involved the SSG’s Technical Operative Agency to ‘immediately erase cameras’ — the potential evidence of their crime.
[Read more on OC Media: Footage of Mukhtarli on night of his abduction ‘doctored’ as EU calls for answers]
Gogashvili named the other executors of Mukhtarli’s abduction: Kuprashvili’s deputy, Kakha Topuria, Giorgi Trapaidze, the one that Mukhtarli recognised and who currently heads SSG’s Counterintelligence Department, Trapaidze’s deputy, Zviad Balarjishvili, and ‘officer Erkomaishvili’.
Gogashvili claimed seven people were involved in the kidnapping but he did not remember the names of two of those seven individuals.
According to Gogashvili, Kuprashvili deviated from the original plan because he decided there was a convenient moment to kidnap Mukhtarli while he was in Tbilisi.
In conversation with TV Pirveli, Mukhtarli said that his kidnappers would have a problem abducting him while in Marneuli, where he was accompanied by others.
Gogashvili admitted that he was involved in overseeing the process of destroying evidence, including the cancellation of corporate numbers of the cars used in the kidnapping.
‘Later, as the public knows it, there was no trace left of Mukhtarli’s kidnapping. I, obviously, feel my share of responsibility and I will present all information and evidence to an objective [investigation]’, Gogashvili also wrote.
Motives and ‘fake’ versions
Gogashvili also alleged on 4 October that ‘those close to’ the Azerbaijani government that he said had ties with Ivanishvili’s ‘close entourage’ became unhappy about Mukhtarli criticising the Azerbaijani authorities while being based in Georgia. This, according to him, led to Mukhtarli’s kidnapping from Tbilisi.
‘If Georgia were to expunge Mukhtarli from Georgia, this would reflect well on their business relations in Azerbaijan. They [unidentified Georgians doing business in Azerbaijan] relayed this information to Ivanishvili who, for his part, tasked his loyal guard, Gomelauri, with solving this issue’, Gogashvili claimed.
Soso Gogashvili also alleged that after Mukhtarli’s scandalous reemergence in Azerbaijan following his disappearance, the Georgian Government deliberately floated a ‘fake’ version of events that he had illegally crossed the Georgian–Azerbiajani border.
To make the story look convincing, according to Gogashvili, they sacked the Head of the Border Police Davit Nikolaishvili, and Otar Kuprashvili.
The former deputy head of SSG additionally claimed that ‘behind the scenes’, Georgia started to tell certain ‘international partners’ that Azerbaijani special forces were behind Mukhtarli’s kidnapping, something that they supposedly failed to prevent.
‘I was present at one of these meetings when Gomelauri told our foreign partners about this version. For obvious reasons, I cannot name the country the guests represented’, Gomelauri said.
The SSG declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office into the kidnapping.
The Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.