Missing Journalist Sparks Protests, Conflicting Stories
Authorities in Azerbaijan and Georgia are facing mounting criticism for their possible role in the apparent kidnapping of Afgan Mukhtarli, the Azerbaijani journalist who disappeared from Tbilisi on May 29 and was next seen two days later being led into a Baku courtroom.
Mukhtarli has been charged with illegal border crossing, disorderly conduct, and currency violations. Police claim he did not have his passport when he was arrested and that he was carrying an undeclared €10,000 (about US$ 11,200). The court sentenced him to 90 days’ pre-trial detention.
Leyla Mustafayeva, Mukhtarli’s wife, told police that her husband had called to tell her he was on his way home after meeting with friends when he disappeared. She said he had no passport and no more than a few Georgian lari (about US$ 2) on him at the time.
Police offer conflicting accounts of what happened to Mukhtarli, with the stories differing across borders and even within each country.
Mukhtarli's lawyers in Baku say via social media that Mukhtarli left a coffee shop and stopped at a market to buy bread and sunflower seeds. He then took a mini-van to a place near his home. According to his lawyers, he says he was kidnapped on the street near his Tbilisi flat, thrown into a van, and that his head was covered. He believes he was driven about two hours to a remote border crossing, where the money was planted on him and he was promptly arrested by Azerbaijani security officials.
The first public assertion that the two countries cooperated in an operation came on June 9 from Azerbaijani parliamentarian Elman Nasirov, a member of the ruling party, who said that special services forces worked together to seize Mukhtarli and deliver him to Azerbaijan.
On Tuesday, a statement from the Azerbaijan Prosecutor General's Office refuted that version of events.
“As reported earlier, at 22:40 May 29, Azerbaijani citizen Afgan Mukhtarli without his national ID card on him attempted to flee after illegally crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan away from the nearest border checkpoint. He was detained by border guards after refusing to obey their legal demand,” read the statement.
Georgian security officials have been more tight-lipped, despite street protests against the kidnapping in Tbilisi and growing international criticism of the case.
The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs told a reporter it has no plans to release video from its own security cameras along the route Mukhtarli told his lawyers he took before the alleged kidnapping, citing the ongoing investigation.
When contacted by OCCRP reporters, several private businesses along the route refused to share their security videos. One cited company policy. The second company referred to Georgian laws on personal data.
Two OCCRP reporters and a Rustavi-2 TV journalist viewed two hours of video from a camera at another private business on the route Mukhtarli said he took. Georgian security officials visited this business before and shortly after the journalists were there. The name of the business is being withheld at its request.
The video appears to be doctored. It shows a view of a busy sidewalk on Nikoloz Baratashvili Street, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Tbilisi, during the early evening.
At first, the video shows a street scene that is dark and rainy. At about the time Mukhtarli would be passing by, there is an abrupt break in the footage, and the next shots show a clear early evening with the sun shining. The vehicles and pedestrians visible before and after the break do not match. The clock on the video shows a leap backwards in time of several seconds. A few minutes later, the video appears to revert to the rainy evening.
The reporters interviewed more than a dozen people who were in the area at the time. Nobody said they saw anything. Two shop employees who did not want themselves or their shops identified said that official Ministry of Internal Affairs cameras are mounted on their shops, but access to the footage can only be obtained from inside the shops.
The two employees, interviewed nine days after the incident, said no security operatives had yet entered their shops to check the video. Other people interviewed said police did not question them until eight days after the incident.
The Georgian government has sent mixed messages about the case. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandre Jejelava cast doubt on Mukhtarli’s story. “It’s not suspicious when a person’s passport is at home. I leave my passport at home, too. If he was going to cross the border legally, then he would need the passport. If he wanted to do it illegally, he would not.”
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili decried the slow pace of the investigation, and sarcastically suggested a magician be recruited to solve the case: “The person disappeared in Tbilisi and appeared in Baku. Should we ask David Copperfield what happened?”
On June 9, 11 days after Mukhtarli disappeared, the Georgia State Security Service issued a brief statement: “The announcement of the Azerbaijan parliamentarian (about Georgian cooperation) is not true. We did not participate in the arrest.”
On June 13, Mukhtarli’s Georgian lawyer, Archil Chipikashvili, said in an interview with PrimeTime that investigators told him that about 200 witnesses had been interrogated, but that none had any relevant information. He said the investigators will eventually share video from 30 security cameras with him.
Ian Kelly, US Ambassador to Georgia, has been one of the most outspoken foreign diplomats about the incident. Speaking at a scholarship ceremony in Tbilisi on June 5, he said: “Most of you saw the statement of the [US] State Department over the weekend where we called on Azerbaijan to release Mr. Mukhtarli and all those who are trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression.”
“And, in that same statement, we urge Georgia to conduct a full investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Mukhtarli’s disappearance from Georgia. We are in close contact with the government and we know that they really appreciate how serious these allegations are, and we hope and expect to get the results of the investigation soon. So I look forward to hearing from them.”
While Mukhtarli serves 90 days of pre-trial detention, his wife and four-year-old daughter, Nuray, remain in Tbilisi. Among the media outlets both Mukhtarli and Mustafayeva regularly write for is Meydan TV, a Berlin-based online channel which has long been at loggerheads with the Azerbaijani government.
Several Meydan reporters inside Azerbaijan are banned from leaving the country, and the government recently received court approval to use blocking technology to limit access to Meydan TV in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani government has faced mounting criticism in recent years from international human rights organizations, journalists’ groups, and other bodies for its harsh crackdown on press freedom and opposition political activity.
According to Mukhtarli’s lawyers in Baku, at least one Independent journalist has been summoned to the Prosecutor's office in connection with Mukhtarli’s case.