Persecuted and imprisoned for his reporting, an Azerbaijani journalist seeks the real story of his abduction from a street in the Georgian capital.

Over the years, Georgia has welcomed many Azerbaijanis seeking refuge from the autocratic regime in Baku.

The notion that Georgia is a haven for people displaced from its undemocratic neighboring countries, however, has lost some of its credibility. The country’s active civil society sector tries to support those who flee here seeking safety from persecution, but suspicions linger that oil-rich Azerbaijan uses energy and other ties to undermine democratic rights in Georgia.

The story of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who fled to Georgia in search of a safe haven only to run head-on into the obscure ways of international politics, underscores this change. Now back in Georgia after four years, most of it spent in prison, Mukhtarli is demanding a full investigation into his claims of high-level Georgian involvement in his abduction to Azerbaijan.  

Until 2015, Mukhtarli’s reporting, much of it for the Berlin-based news organization Meydan TV and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, focused on the regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and corruption in Azerbaijan. Persecution by Azerbaijani authorities led Mukhtarli to relocate with his family to Georgia, from where he covered topics such as the Azerbaijani ruling party’s predictable election victories, Baku’s fury at being called out over its harassment of critics, and social issues such as the alarming rise in suicides. He also held protests outside Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tbilisi and covered problems facing other Azerbaijani activists living in Georgia.

The Kidnapping

On 29 May 2017, Mukhtarli was seized from a street in Tbilisi and forcibly transferred to Azerbaijan, where he was imprisoned. In January 2018 he was sentenced to six years in prison for resisting arrest, illegally crossing the border, and smuggling 10,000 euros across the border.

Mukhtarli’s attorney, Archil Chopikashvili, said his client was apprehended by men he described as wearing Georgian police uniforms, then pushed into a car, beaten, and driven to the Azerbaijani border, where 10,000 euros were allegedly planted on him. Two days later, then-Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called on the authorities to thoroughly investigate the incident, saying the disappearance of someone from Georgian territory was “a serious challenge to our statehood and our sovereignty.”

Georgian and international journalists demanded Mukhtarli’s immediate release. The European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that he “went into exile in Georgia to escape reprisals for his work by the Azerbaijani authorities” and expressing concern that his case “is another example of the Azerbaijani authorities targeting and persecuting critics living in exile and their relatives at home.”

Mukhtarli says it was thanks to this international pressure that Azerbaijani authorities ordered his early release from prison in March 2020.

The incident had repercussions in Georgia. In July 2017, the chief of the Georgian Border Police and the director of counterintelligence at the State Security Service were dismissed in what both agencies called a measure to reassure the public while the investigation into Mukhtarli’s abduction continued.

Mukhtarli claims that some kind of agreement between Georgian and Azerbaijani authorities made his abduction possible. As Reporters Without Borders notes, “Georgia has never provided a conclusive explanation for the possible role played by Georgian authorities in Mukhtarli’s abduction.” 

The U.S. State Department hints at possible political influence being brought to bear on his and other cases, saying in its 2020 human rights report on Georgia: “In certain politically sensitive cases investigated by the [Prosecutor General’s office] – including the case of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli and instances of political violence – impunity remained a problem.”

After his release Mukhtarli relocated to Germany, where he had been given political asylum while in prison. His first attempt to return to Georgia last October failed when he was not allowed to board a Berlin-Tbilisi flight because, he said, Georgian Airways and Georgian embassy personnel claimed his documents were not in order. On 8 April, he successfully flew to Tbilisi and held a news conference, during which he repeated his earlier accusations that high-level Georgian-Azerbaijani ties underlay his persecution.

“I do not have high expectations of the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office, because [the abduction] was committed by the Georgian government,” he said, alleging that both Giorgi Kvirikashvili – the prime minister in 2017 – and ruling Georgian Dream party founder Bidzina Ivanishvili “knew about” his kidnapping. “I have no hope, but we have to go to the end and I have to testify,” he said at the news conference.

Kvirikashvili called the allegations absurd. Ivanishvili has not responded to the claims.

Chopikashvili said his client was fully cooperating with the Georgian investigation into his abduction. Mukhtarli told prosecutors his abductors covered his eyes with tape and a cloth before moving him to another car, and provided further details of the abduction, Chopikashvili said.

After questioning Mukhtarli, prosecutors acceded to Chopikashvili’s request to grant Mukhtarli victim status, which allows him to request special protection for him and his family. Prosecutors also are now investigating the incident as conspiracy to deprive a person of liberty.

While the Mukhtarli case is being investigated in Georgia, the Georgian state, along with Azerbaijan, could be sanctioned for violating his rights to a fair trial and improperly detaining him if a lawsuit filed at the European Court of Human Rights by the Rights Georgia organization is successful. According to Chopikashvili, the court has completed hearings in the case, although no date has been set for announcing its decision.

Jamal Ali: Not Wanted in Georgia

Mukhtarli is not the only Azerbaijani exile seeking justice for a miscarriage of justice in Georgia. In April 2017, Jamal Ali, an Azerbaijani musician and producer for Meydan TV, arrived at Tbilisi International Airport to attend meetings in the city but was not allowed on the territory of Georgia. Because no reason was given for the decision, Georgia’s Social Justice Center commented at the time, “there is a legitimate assumption that the state’s decision to refuse to allow a journalist into Georgia was substantially discriminatory and was due to the Georgian government’s political loyalty to the Azerbaijani government.” 

Ali, who has lived in Berlin since spending 10 days in an Azerbaijani jail in 2012 for “hooliganism,” has released frequent reports and videos critical of the government in Baku. He attributes his quick release from jail in 2012 to the Eurovision song contest finals in Baku, saying the authorities did not want bad publicity to spoil the event.

In a report he filed for Meydan TV from Tbilisi in 2017, he asked whether Azerbaijan was supplying natural gas at no cost to churches in Georgia even though some Azerbaijani villages had problems with their gas supply. The story stoked a rally in Georgia, and, he believes, explains why he was not allowed back into the country in April of that year.

He says the interest of the Azerbaijani government is evident in his case. “In my opinion, Georgia and Azerbaijan have ties, thanks to which the government of Azerbaijan influences political decisions of Georgia.”

Good Neighbors

Georgia and Azerbaijan have signed more than 100 bilateral and multilateral agreements regulating practically all areas of cooperation between the two countries.

Energy is one of the main areas of cooperation. The flow is almost entirely one way, from Azerbaijan’s gas and oil fields to Georgia, and sometimes beyond to Turkey and Western consumers through the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipelines and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline.

Even so, for years Georgia welcomed many Azerbaijanis seeking refuge from the regime. That began to change about five years ago. After Mukhtarli’s kidnapping, the Tbilisi-based Social Justice Center examined the cases of Azerbaijani journalists, activists, and politicians living in Georgia. Its report stated that since 2016, “the Government of Georgia has refused to grant refugee status or a residence permit to activists and journalists displaced by the undemocratic regime of Azerbaijan, which should be the result of political loyalty of Government to Azerbaijan.”

According to the report, the relevant authorities in Georgia typically reject these applications on the basis of a secret report issued by the security services with reference to unspecified and unsubstantiated national security interests.

The Social Justice Center report said that in this environment, journalists and activists from Azerbaijan are leaving the country “because they feel the risks of persecution and disappearance. … These facts drastically damage the process of building democracy and protecting human rights in Georgia.” 

Manon Bokuchava is a journalist based in the Kvemo Kartli region of Georgia and a doctoral student at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.