Azerbaijani dissident Afghan Mukhtarli, who has been in exile in Georgia since 2015 after criticising the Azerbaijani regime of President Ilham Aliyev, disappeared from the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi on May 29 only to resurface in an Azerbaijani jail a day later, with his lawyers claiming he was abducted and transported across the border.
Mukhtarli and his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva, are two of an increasing number of Azerbaijani dissidents that have fled to Georgia in recent years in order to escape persecution at home.Under Aliyev, Azerbaijan has become one of the worst places for human rights in the world. Critics of the government and political opponents are customarily harassed, jailed and sentenced on trumped-up charges in embezzlement, tax evasion, or drug or weapon possession. Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan as the 162nd worst out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Freedom Index.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's more democratic neighbour Georgia is an aspirant to EU membership that has made strides toward democratic reform in the last decade. However, recent reports have claimed that Tbilisi is now sacrificing democratic principles to protect its bilateral ties with its more dictatorial neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan is one of Georgia’s top trading partners and the source of most of its gas. Commercial and diplomatic relations between the two countries are very close.
Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) cited Elchin Sadigov, Mukhtarli’s lawyer, as saying that the journalist was abducted while he was headed to his home in Tbilisi on May 29, hooded and transported to Azerbaijan. His initial abductors reportedly spoke Georgian; after two car changes, those transporting him spoke Azerbaijani. Mukhtarli's passport remains at his home in Tbilisi, Eurasianet reported on May 30 citing Mukhtarli’s wife. During transport, he was reportedly tied up and beaten, according to RFE/RL.
It is unclear whether the abduction was conducted by the Azerbaijani secret services, the Georgian secret services or both in collaboration.
Baku customarily detains those that are critical of the regime and their families when they attempt to enter or leave the county. In a separate case, on May 25 Gozel Bayramli, deputy head of the largest opposition party in Azerbaijan, the Popular Front, was detained when returning from Georgia. Azerbaijani authorities accused her of carrying $12,000 in her hand luggage without declaring it. Ali Kerimli, the party's chairman, claims that she was set up.
According to RFE/RL, dozens of Georgians demonstrated in Tbilisi on May 31 against Mukhtarli’s alleged abduction, while Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili described it as a serious challenge to the Georgian state and its sovereignty. “Georgia is a regional leader in terms of protection of human rights and journalists in particular... Upholding this standard is a matter of our state’s sovereignity,” Margvelashvili said, according to RFE/RL.
In a Facebook post on May 31, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, said that he was “appalled” by what had happened to Mukhtarli and called on the Georgian authorities to react urgently. The Georgian interior ministry said it has launched an investigation into the affair.