Georgia helped with the kidnapping of Azerbaijani journalist in exile Afgan Mukhtarli, his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva tells Hromadske. His disappearance from neighboring Georgia and reappearance in custody in his native Azerbaijan two days later has raised international criticism against Azerbaijani and Georgian authorities.
Mukhtarli disappeared from his Tbilisi home on May 29, 2017. In two days he led into a Baku court facing charges of "illegal border crossing, currency violation and disorderly conduct". He has been sentenced to a 90-day pre-trial detention.
Hromadske sat down with Mukhtarli's wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, to get Mukhtarli's side of the story.
According to Mustafayeva, Mukhtarli was kidnapped by “unknown people, who were in the masks and uniforms of the criminal police of Georgia” and handed over to Azerbaijani authorities. She believes that both Azerbaijani and Georgian authorities are involved in the kidnapping as Mukhtarli was investigating the business dealings of Azerbaijan's ruling family in Georgia. He also organized protests in front of the Azerbaijani embassy for the release of Azerbaijani political prisoners and journalists.
“Azerbaijani authorities and also Georgian authorities were worried about this situation, because Azerbaijan asked Georgia to kick these people [activists–ed.] out of its country,” Mustafayeva said, “but the Georgian side couldn’t do it directly.” Hence, Mukhtarli was elaborately kidnapped.
Mukhtarli worked for the Azerbaijani media organization MeydanTV and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). He fled Azerbaijan in January 2015 due to oppression. He is the first journalist to investigate the business holdings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family in Georgia. At the time of his kidnapping, he was working on these reports. According to his wife, his investigative work, activism and his critical voice on social media about Azerbaijani-Georgian relations, as well as gas and energy deals, made him a target.
What exactly happened to Afgan?
Leyla Mustafayeva: On May 29 he didn’t return home, so he made a phone call to me in the evening, 7pm, and he said that he’ll be at home soon. And in the morning, I woke up and saw that his bed was as it was. So I became very worried that something was wrong with him. And that day, after a few hours, we received information from Afgan that he is in Baku. And later, he informed us through lawyers that he has been abducted a hundred metres away from our house by people, unknown people, who were in masks and uniforms of the criminal police of Georgia. And he was taken and beaten when he was detained, and was taken to the border, the northern border between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
How do you think this could happen? Why do Azerbaijan need Afgan? What was his expertise? What was he doing?
Leyla Mustafayeva: So, he fled to Georgia in January 2015, because of this crackdown, oppressions to NGOs and journalists in Azerbaijan. So after 2015, after a year since he arrived in Georgia – he is an investigative journalist– he started to investigate Azerbaijan’s top state officials investment to Georgia. And it turned out that the first, Ilham Aliyev’s family members had hotels in Tbilisi. He investigated the stake in Georgia’s bank sector and it turned out that they even have these big cargo companies in Georgia. So each was related to the members of the first family. Plus, Afgan was the first journalist who explored the first family’s business in Georgia. There wasn’t any investigation from Georgia on this field. And they are very angry with the people who investigate and expose their businesses. And if you take into consideration that oil price had dropped and their income had become lower and lower. And in this period, they have real anger. Plus, he was very active and critical in his Facebook posts. He was openly criticizing the relationship between Georgia and Azerbaijan, democracy, gas interests, energy interests. And he was very active, because after 2014, because of the crackdown in Azerbaijan, a lot of journalists and activists fled to Georgia and they create some community in Georgia and he was one of the main persons who gathered them and created this Azeri-community in Tbilisi. They organized the protest, actually, in front of the Azeri Embassy in Georgia and they were demanding the release of political prisoners and journalists as well. Of course, Azerbaijani authorities and also Georgian authorities were worried about this situation, because, on the Azerbaijani side, they were asking Georgia to kick these people out of its country. But the Georgian side couldn’t do it directly.
So you think that this abduction or kidnapping have to do with both countries? That Georgia might have taken some part in that?
Leyla Mustafayeva: Yes, Georgia is also inside it, this case. We have a lot of reasons to think like that. If, we think that, if just few some small criminal group had abducted him, the police would be very motivated to investigate and explore those people, those persons who abducted him in the streets. But later it turned out that before the investigation started, state officials, prime minister, minister of security, minister of internal affairs, they made a statement that they were not inside it, this abduction case. But it was weird, how could they know about it before the investigation is finished? And I think that these people are top state officials and people in the government of Georgia agreed to this abduction or who controlled this abduction operation. Because Afgan was saying that when these people were taking him to the border, on the way they were talking Georgian and they were reporting to someone in the top in Georgia. Plus, that day, they have interrogated about 200 people in the area where we live. And you see that none of them has said that they have seen anything. Plus, they say that they have about 30 videos, but none of these of videos demonstrate the scenes of his abduction or how they take him out of his car. That is why we are 100% that state officials are inside it, and that is why the police doesn’t want to expose them.
/Text by Chen Ou Yang