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Georgian Furor Erupts Over Azerbaijani Dissident's Reported Abduction

Leyla Mustafayeva, wife of Azerbaijani journalist Afqan Muxtarli, leads a June 1 protest in Tbilisi against her husband's reported forced return to Azerbaijan.
Leyla Mustafayeva, wife of Azerbaijani journalist Afqan Muxtarli, leads a June 1 protest in Tbilisi against her husband's reported forced return to Azerbaijan.

When Afqan Muxtarli stepped out in downtown Tbilisi to buy some bread around dinnertime on May 29, he didn't think the errand would take him some 600 kilometers away to a dank jail cell in Azerbaijan's glimmering capital, Baku.

But Muxtarli -- an Azerbaijani journalist who fled to Georgia with his family in 2015 after reportedly receiving threats while investigating alleged government corruption -- never came home after speaking on the phone with his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, just a few blocks from where they live with their 3-year-old daughter.

Worried when her husband failed to arrive or answer his phone, she reported Muxtarli missing and police began a search for him on May 30.

That same day, Azerbaijani officials announced he was in pretrial detention in Baku after being charged with trespassing, smuggling, and resisting police after trying to cross the border without a passport and with 10,000 euros ($11,300) in his pocket.

But Muxtarli -- a fierce critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev -- had a much different story to tell.

His lawyer in Azerbaijan, Elcin Sadiqov, said that Muxtarli told him that he had been accosted by four men on his way home in Tbilisi and forced into a car.

Muxtarli, who had once volunteered to be a bodyguard for RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova during her disputes with Azerbaijani authorities, said his abductors tied his hands, beat him, and put a hood over his head before driving toward Azerbaijan.

Muxtarli, 43, told Sadiqov that they changed cars twice before finally reaching the Laqadex-Balakan border crossing, where he was turned over to Azerbaijani officials who, he said, planted the euros on him and then promptly arrested him.

Afqan Muxtarli arrives at court in Baku on May 31.
Afqan Muxtarli arrives at court in Baku on May 31.

Sadiqov has been able to meet with Muxtarli only once since a court quickly ordered the journalist detained for 90 days as an investigation into his case continues.

Sadiqov said Muxtarli had bruises on his face and thinks he may have broken ribs due to the alleged beating he received from the unidentified men, three of whom he said were dressed as some kind of Georgian security officers.

At first the abductors spoke Georgian, Muxtarli said, but later those in the car were speaking in Azeri to people calling every 15-20 minutes asking for updates on the situation.

Georgian Outrage

Mustafayeva, Muxtarli's wife, has dismissed the Azerbaijani version of her husband's disappearance, adding that he never would have returned to Azerbaijan under the current conditions, knowing that he'd certainly be detained.

"We know the official version of the Azerbaijani side -- that Mr. Muxtarli was trying to somehow sneak into Azerbaijan illegally, having left his passport at home," Ghia Nodia, a Georgia analyst and professor of politics at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, tells RFE/RL. "But the credibility of that version is very low."

Georgian civil activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens were outraged at the reports of Muxtarli's delivery to Azerbaijan, with many suspecting the Georgian government's knowledge if not connivance in the snatching.

"Most people assume Mr. Muxtarli was abducted, and if he was abducted then there are basically two possibilities," Nodia says. "One that it was some kind of a [covert] deal between the Georgian government and the Azerbaijani government...or it was an Azerbaijani security service operation but supposedly they bribed some Georgian policemen -- or maybe there is some kind of in-between: that the Azerbaijanis have hinted that we'll take care of the business ourselves but you [Georgians] will kind of turn a blind eye to this."

A group of Georgian journalists put black hoods over their heads and held up signs in support of Muxtarli in a protest in parliament on June 6, one of several demonstrations that have taken place since Muxtarli's disappearance.

The "black-hood campaign" -- in which people photograph themselves hooded or with signs in support of Muxtarli -- spread quickly to Twitter and Facebook under the #freeAfgan hashtag.

On June 7, black-hooded journalists appeared unexpectedly on a Georgian TV show, prompting Deputy Interior Minister Shalva Khutsishvili to leave the program.

'Serious Challenge' For Georgia

Strong condemnation of Muxtarli's reported abduction also poured in from Western countries and organizations and international rights groups.

"Azerbaijan has an appalling record of harassing and prosecuting government critics, and we are seriously concerned" about Muxtarli's safety, Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.

Amnesty International's director for the South Caucasus, Levan Asatiani, called Muxtarli's reported kidnapping "a deeply sinister development" for Azerbaijan, a country that he said is well-known for its "crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders."

Asatiani called for Muxtarli's immediate release and urged Georgian authorities to investigate the situation and "hold accountable all those involved in this gruesome operation."

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement that Muxtarli's "disappearance from Georgian territory" was a "serious challenge" for the country.

"Georgia is a regional leader in terms of protection of human rights and journalists in particular," Margvelashvili said. "Upholding this standard is a matter of our state sovereignty."

The Georgian government has been less condemnatory of the incident, Nodia says, and is urging people to wait for the probe to conclude before assuming any Georgian officials were involved in Muxtarli's abduction.

Not-So-Warm Welcome

Many critics also dismissed the government's offer of Georgian citizenship to Mustafayeva -- which she refused, saying her husband is the one who needed a Georgian passport -- noting that Muxtarli's wife had her residency application rejected by Tbilisi just weeks ago.

Mustafayeva is one of several Azerbaijanis living in Georgia to experience such problems in recent months.

"Many [Azerbaijani] dissidents or oppositionists who are in Georgia were pressured to go elsewhere, they were denied residence permits, so...[Georgian officials] really consider this presence of Azerbaijani citizens -- which their government considers social enemies -- a problem for Georgia and they want to get rid of them," Nodia says.

Azerbaijani opposition activist Dasqin Agalari, who was recently refused political asylum in Georgia, said that "we are all being politely told to leave the country," reported.

"I think it's obvious there is some kind of pressure by [Azerbaijan] on the Georgian government, which says, 'You know we give you oil and gas and you depend on us energy-wise so you should do something about [the dissidents], it is unacceptable that all of our enemies are there and conspire against Azerbaijan,'" Nodia says. "And the Georgian government doesn't want to alienate the Azerbaijani government. They don't want to openly harass these people or hand them back to Azerbaijan but they don't want to make the Azerbaijani government unhappy, either."

Many observers point to Georgia's dependence on Azerbaijan for its energy resources and to key Azerbaijani-funded transport and infrastructure deals in the Caucasus country as the reason for Georgia's apparent pressure on Azerbaijan's dissidents.

A social-media meme dubbed "Socartvelo" combines the name of Azerbaijan's state oil company, SOCAR, with the native word for Georgia, Sakartvelo.

"Trade between Azerbaijan and Georgia"
"Trade between Azerbaijan and Georgia"

Blow To Reputation

The reputation of Georgia -- whose citizens were recently granted visa-free travel to the European Union and which seeks to become a full-fledged member of that bloc as well as of NATO -- is also taking a hit because of the Muxtarli incident.

"[It] is...a huge scandal that something like this could happen on Georgian soil," Heidi Hautala, a Finnish member of the European Parliament, told RFE/RL. "I think it is very important to now clarify...through an independent and credible investigation who is...complicit in this horrible abduction."

She said the European Parliament had a responsibility "to raise this question at the highest level."

Nodia adds: "I think it is extremely embarrassing for Georgia because...basically [it's] losing its reputation as an island of freedom in the Caucasus and it looks like…it is caving in to Azerbaijan, to the demands of the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan as well as from Turkey."

Georgia is also being criticized for closing down a Turkish-run college in the seaport of Batumi late last year after the Turkish government said that institution was linked to the Gulen network, which Ankara accuses of carrying out last year's failed coup attempt.

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Bidzina Ramischwili and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report