Georgia: Still Waiting for Results from Azerbaijani Journalist Kidnapping Investigation
Just over a month since the kidnapping of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Tbilisi, the Georgian government still has no official explanation for his disappearance from the Georgian capital and incarceration in an Azerbaijani jail.
As yet, there has been no detailed public briefing about police investigators’ findings concerning the May 29 abduction of the investigative journalist, a self-exiled critic of the Azerbaijani government.
That does not mean they do not exist. But amidst ongoing domestic and international concerns about what the case could mean for Georgia’s reputation as a developing democracy, the government appears resolutely tight-lipped.
Now on the defensive, Tbilisi has emphasized that an investigation is, indeed, underway. It has asked Azerbaijan that Georgian investigators be allowed to hear from Mukhtarli himself, currently in pre-trial detention in Baku on questionable criminal charges, about his kidnapping. Tbilisi is waiting for Baku’s response to its request, General Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze announced on June 27.
Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Shalva Khutsishvili, though, has promised that once Tbilisi has that testimony and "the broader picture is clear,” as the government-run Agenda.ge put it, the investigation’s interim results and relevant CCTV camera recordings will be released.
Some wonder how much there will be to show.
Nine days after Mukhtarli’s abduction, OCCRP reported, employees at one shop in the presumed area of Mukhtarli’s kidnapping said that no interior-ministry representatives had come to review footage from their ministry-installed CCTV cameras.
Relevant footage obtained by OCCRP and Rustavi2 from another camera looked like it had been doctored, the two outlets reported. It contained no sign of Mukhtarli or an abduction.
That lack of CCTV footage also has sparked questions from President Giorgi Margvelashvili. On June 27, he met with Mukhtarli’s wife, Azerbaijani journalist and translator Leyla Mustafayeva, at her request, to discuss the case.
Mustafeyeva and her lawyer have complained about the lack of information from the interior ministry about its investigation, and earlier questioned the apparent lack of eyewitnesses to the kidnapping.
Margvelashvili, who says that he will personally monitor the investigation, appears to share much of these concerns. The presidential administration has stressed the need for more public information and a more active investigation as well as an explanation about why the prosecutor’s office has not granted Mustafayeva the official status of a victim.
The government, though, has long viewed the apolitical Margvelashvili as akin to the opposition, and is not expected to heed his objections on such a sensitive case.
Members of Georgia's parliamentary opposition already have signalled their own distrust in the interior ministry's Mukhtarli investigation, and, this week, called for parliament to start its own.
The Georgian Dream reportedly is divided over the desirability of such a move, with faction leaders again sounding alarm bells about damaging the country's image.
Human-Rights Parliamentary Committee Chairperson Sopo Kiladze, for instance, appeared just as concerned about ties with Azerbaijan as about Mukhtarli’s own rights.
“First of all, the injured party’s interests should not be violated, but neither should state relations be besmirched,” Kiladze advised on June 28, public TV reported.
Setting up a temporary parliamentary committee for an investigation would be “premature,” she concluded. “We should be very careful,” she stressed.
That, too, appears to be the watchword of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
He has not yet responded to a June 6 letter by 23 international human-rights and media-development organizations that termed Mukhtarli's abduction "a black stain on Georgia’s reputation as a leader in upholding human rights standards in the Caucasus region," Simon Papuashvili, a project coordinator for one of the signatories, the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, told Tamada Tales.
Silence is not likely to stop the scrutiny, however.
The New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch on June 30 pressed Georgia to "ensure a prompt and credible investigation, and appropriately prosecute all those responsible, regardless of nationality or official position."
Similarly, the European Parliament on June 13 passed a resolution that warned that a failure “to clarify all suspicion as to the possible involvement of state security institutions in the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli” would mean, among other things, “a severe violation of the letter and spirit of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement . . ."
For now, though, both the EU and Georgia's other main international ally, the United States, are publicly echoing Tbilisi's refrain about waiting on the investigation.
“I expect [an] investigation that will not be superficial, but substantial and then we have to see what is the outcome," European Neighbourhoood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn told Georgia's Rustavi2 on June 22. "I don’t want to speculate . . ."
Nor does US Ambassador Ian Kelly, who has said he's “convinced that the Georgian government has a serious attitude towards this case.”
Others would say that the proof is in the pudding.
As an author of the European Parliament's resolution noted to two local outlets this week, "The sooner Georgia investigates and presents the findings of the investigation, the better it will be for the country’s reputation."