Released from prison for a day to attend a memorial service for his relatives, journalist Afgan Mukhtarli said that Georgia’s government was behind his abduction from Georgia and rendition to his native Azerbaijan. The explosive allegations prompted officials in Tbilisi to lash out at Mukhtarli, whose travails have made him a cause celebre among many in Georgia.
“This happened by sanction and, probably, direct order of [Prime Minister Giorgi] Kvirikashvili,” Mukhtarli told Rustavi2, a Georgian television company critical of Kvirikashvili’s government. Mukhtarli also implicated billionaire ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, widely perceived as the puppet master behind Georgian politics. “Bidzina Ivanishvili is the eminence grise of the Georgian government. Without his imprimatur, Kvirikashvili could not have done this.”
Mukhtarli vanished from Tbilisi last year just as he was investigating Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s business interests in Georgia. He reappeared in prison in Baku and was later sentenced to six years in jail on spurious charges of smuggling and illegal border-crossing. Much of Georgia, especially the media community, was left aghast by what looked like the next-door police state brazenly reaching into foreign territory to hunt down a critical journalist.
“I was not able to finish my investigation because I got kidnapped, but I believe his [President Aliyev’s] business partner in Georgia is Bidzina Ivanishvili. I think Ivanishvili discussed my kidnapping with Kvirikashvili,” he said.
After his interview aired on Rustavi2, lawmakers from the Georgian Dream, Georgia’s governing party established by Ivanishvili and presided by Kvirikashvili, lashed out at Mukhtarli.
“These allegations are totally unacceptable and unsubstantiated, I can’t even spare a serious comment on this,” said MP Sofio Kiladze. “Given his words and his attitude, I have no concern whatsoever for the fate of Mukhtarli,” said another Georgian Dream member, Zviad Kvachantiradze.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze described Mukhtarli’s allegations as “absurd.”
For all the denials, Georgian government’s continued failure to investigate the abduction only gives credence to Mukhtarli’s version in the eyes of many Georgians. The Georgian police claim that security cameras were conveniently out of order at a checkpoint on the Georgian-Azerbaijan border the day when Mukhtarli went across has only added to the public's skepticism.
As the controversy has lingered on, Mukhtarli’s brief release from prison last week offered a chance for Georgian reporters to interview him about the circumstances of his disappearance from Tbilisi. Posing as tourists, Rustavi2 reporters travelled to the village of Ashagi Tala near the Georgian border, where Mukhtarli was attending a memorial service for his sister, niece and nephew, who died in December in a carbon monoxide poisoning accident. There, the reporters and Mukhtarli managed to briefly sneak away from his police escort to record an interview on a cellphone camera.
“I was just 100-150 meters away from home, when three men attacked me from behind… they wore Georgian special police uniforms,” Mukhtarli said, recounting last year’s attack in Tbilisi. He said he was beaten, blindfolded, driven out of the city and then taken out of the car in a wooded area.
“I begged them not to kill me with a knife and to use gun instead, and to tell my wife never to return to Azerbaijan… but they said no harm would come to me,” he said. Later he was driven further, in two separate cars, until he reached the Azerbaijani border, he said.
Since the incident, the Azerbaijan government, a longtime jailer of journalists, has made no scruples about indicating that Mukhtarli was transferred to Azerbaijan by force. One member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party even openly applauded Georgian and Azerbaijani security services for cooperating in Mukhtarli’s handover.
The Georgian authorities are compelled to deny involvement to preserve Georgia’s image as the region’s most promising democracy. But to domestic critics, Mukhtarli’s case demonstrates that Georgia’s commitment to democracy only goes so far when the next-door autocracy, a key energy supplier and business partner, comes calling in favors.