No room for dissidents in Georgia and Azerbaijan
Last May, in a café in Tbilisi, Georgia, Afgan Mukhtarli phoned his wife to say that he was on his way home. She told him to pick up some bread. But Mukhtarli, an investigative journalist, never made it back. By the next day he was being held in neighbouring Azerbaijan, facing charges of smuggling €10,000 ($11,800) in cash across the border and resisting arrest.
Leyla Mustafayeva, Muktharli’s wife and a journalist herself, insists that Azerbaijani and Georgian state forces kidnapped her husband and took him across the border. This is backed up by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have dismissed the charges against Mukhtarli as politically motivated.
Mukhtarli had been living in Georgia since 2015 to escape his government’s crackdown on critics. He investigated subjects such as corruption in the Azerbaijani ministry of defence. From Georgia, he carried on his work to expose powerful interests, revealing the ruling family’s links to businesses.
‘In light of the Mukhtarli case and other developments, there are grounds for concern about pressure by Azerbaijan on Georgia to stop providing a safe haven for Azerbaijani dissidents,’ says Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s South Caucasus Director.
Georgia was once hailed as a ‘beacon of democracy’ by Western powers, following the 2003 Rose Revolution. But geopolitics and economic interests have taken priority over human rights. Georgia depends on Azerbaijan for 90 per cent of its natural gas supplies; likewise, Azerbaijan depends on Georgia to be able to export oil to Europe. One of the world’s largest oil pipelines runs through Georgia and provides Azerbaijan with a huge source of revenue.
Despite calls from the US government for a ‘full, transparent, and timely’ investigation, the Georgian Prosecutors Office has not released any details on Mukhtarli’s arrest. Not only was Mukhtarli’s passport left at his apartment in Tbilisi, but CCTV footage on Mukhtarli’s route to the border ‘appears to have been doctored’, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
‘My general impression is that the Georgian government does not have any interest in investigating anything,’ says Ghia Nodia, a prominent regional analyst. ‘This is either because it is implicated in the abduction, which I find quite possible, or because it does not want to complicate relations with [Azerbaijan] by saying that [their] secret services abducted a person from downtown Tbilisi.’
Georgia recently rejected the asylum request of another Azerbaijani, activist Dashgin Aghlari, despite acknowledging that he would face persecution in his home country. Meanwhile, Azerbaijanis who in recent years have sought refuge in Tbilisi are leaving for EU countries. At the time of writing, Mukhtarli’s trial has yet to conclude.
Update: On 12 January 2018, Afgan Mukhtarli was sentenced to a six-year jail term by a district court in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch's Giorgi Gogia called the decision a ‘mockery of justice’.