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Persecution of Azerbaijani activists in Georgia

28.11.2017

 
Natia Gogolashvili

“To tell the truth, at this moment, I do not feel safe. We are under oppression and surveillance,” Azerbaijani politician and activist Dashgin Agalarl said. Dashgin Agalarl is not the only Azerbaijani activist, who does not feel safe in Georgia. For the past months, the persecution of the Azerbaijani activists has intensified in Georgia. Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarl was abducted from the Georgian territory on May 29, 2017. His wife, Leyla Mustafaeva, was compelled to leave Georgia together with her daughter. 

Dashgin and Orkhan Agalarls

Dashgin Agalaral is member of the Azerbaijani opposition political party Musavat, who, because of his political views and active criticism of the government, was persecuted by the Government of Azerbaijan for years. In 2013, he, like other political activists, was charged for the evasion from the payment of taxes while he did not work in the private sector at all. In 2014, he was arrested in Georgia upon arrival from Turkey as a sought by International Police. 

“I have lived in Georgia since March 1, 2014. When I arrived in Georgia from Turkey, I was arrested at the Sarpi checkpoint. I spent 3 days in the Batumi detention setting. The court sentenced me to three-month pretrial imprisonment. I was taken to Kutaisi prison, where I spent one month. Then I was taken to Gldani prison and stayed there until August 29. The family and human rights defenders learned about my whereabouts later. Several members of our diaspora were already here: journalists, human rights defenders, civil activists. Everybody knew that the Azerbaijani authority was oppressing the Government of Georgia to extradite us. Since 2017 I represent Azerbaijani opposition television in Georgia, which is operating from France. When I became representative of this television, my intimidation from the side of Azerbaijan intensified,” Dashgin Agalarl said.

After six-months imprisonment, in 2014, with the legal advocacy of Human Rights Center, he was released from prison under the bail. In March, 2014 he applied to the Ministry of IDPs from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia for his and his son’s refugee status. The Ministry did not satisfy his request and mentioned the secret conclusion of the Counter Intelligence Department as a basis of their refusal. At the same time, the decision of the Ministry stated that in case of his return to Azerbaijan, Dashgin Agalarl may become subject of political persecution. 

“In 2014, we applied to the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation for the refugee status for Dashgin and his son Orkhan Agalarl. The Ministry of Refugees rejected our application and we appealed it at the Court. Dashgin Agalarl won the first instance of the court but the Appeal Court refused him to grant the refugee status. Now we have sent Dashgin Agalarl’s case to the European Court of Human Rights,” head of the HRC legal aid service Tamar Avaliani said. 

As the lawyer said, after the decision of the city court, the persecution and psychological oppression on Dashgin Agalarl intensified. In his conversation with Human Rights Center, Dashgin Agalarl recalled one incident from September 6, 2016 – two different unidentified persons called him on the phone. They asked for the meeting in a square in Tbilisi. One of them presented himself as the representative of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the second said he represented the State Security Service. As Agalarl’s lawyer said, both institutions denied that anybody on their behalves contacted Dashgin Agalarl but none of them have ever investigated those facts. 

“In Georgia, Dashgin Agalarl was subject of persecution. He received calls from the representatives of the State Security Service and MIA and appointed secret meetings with him; they were intimidating him. With regard to these facts we addressed the General Inspection of the MIA and respective investigative bodies, but investigation of those facts have not started yet,” Tamar Avaliani said. 

“I informed my advocate about those phone calls. She told me not to go to unofficial meetings. Two days later, we found out that representative of the Azerbaijani authority was supposed to participate in our meeting too. They wanted to arrange my meeting with him. I cannot clearly state the purpose of the meeting but we assume they wanted me to meet the representatives of the Azerbaijani security services, take our photos and prove that I cooperate with the Azerbaijani side. As a result, they could state that we do not need the status of the refugee,” Agalarl said. 

Afgan Mukhtarl and Leyla Mustafaeva

Afgan Mukhtarl and his wife Leyla Mustafaeva became victims because of their journalistic activities and critical positions. They were active journalists in Azerbaijan, reported about the abuse of human rights by the Azerbaijani authority and publicly criticized the ruling political power. For that reason, Afgan Mukhtarl and Leyla Mustafaeva became victims of intimidation from the side of the Azerbaijani authority. 

In 2015 Leyla Mustafaeva and Afgan Mukhtarl moved to Georgia. They received residence permit and continued their journalistic activities. In Georgia they actively reported about business interests and corruptive schemes of the Azerbaijani authority and Ilham Aliyev’s family, as well as the practice of political persecution in Azerbaijan. Because of active journalistic activities, they were under particular interest of Government of Azerbaijan that was demonstrated into threats and their surveillance in the territory of Georgia. 

In September 2017, Leyla Mustafaeva depicted photo and video materials, which, as she stated, demonstrate how unknown persons regularly watch her and her daughter. The videos were recorded by Leyla Mustafaeva. As the human rights lawyer of Mustafaeva said, before publishing, the video and photo footage were handed to the prosecutor’s office of Georgia but they did not react. 

“I was in a café in the center of Tbilisi, in Liberty square, where several persons entered and put a bag behind me. I think there was surveillance equipment in it. I called police but nobody investigated this fact. We did not receive official information from the prosecutor’s office. Why do those people chase me?! Who they were?! Why did they place a bag behind me?! It means, Georgian law enforcement bodies and prosecutors protect those people. After the Azerbaijani minister’s visit in Georgia, I realized that there is some agreement between the Governments of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Ordinary people were watching me. Georgian police and law enforcement bodies had to combat those facts but they did not. It is illegal when you are chased in the street and you cannot move freely in the street together with your daughter,” Leyla Mustafaeva said. 

In August of 2016, Leyla Mustafaeva had her residence permit expired in Georgia and applied to the State Services Development Agency to extend the permission. However, the Agency did not satisfy her application due to possible threat to public and state security. After that, Leyla and her husband stayed in Georgia based on tourist visa. 

On May 29, this year, Afgan Mukhtarl disappeared from the territory of Georgia and was arrested in Azerbaijan for illegal crossing of border and transporting the smuggled goods. As the advocate of Mukhtarl, the lawyer of the Article 42 of the Constitution Archil Chopikashvili said, Mukhtarl was kidnapped nearby his house in Tbilisi, he was put in the car, a sack was placed over his head and travelled by car during several hours in unidentified direction. When sack was removed from him, he was already in the Azeraijani custom’s office where 10000 EURO was planted on him.

“People in police uniforms put Afgan Mukhtarl into the car and drove him away from the city towards the Airport highway. Later, he was handed to Azerbaijani-speaking people, who, as he assumes, took him across the state border. Later, he was nearby the Michimchae River, at the custom’s checkpoint in the administrative office of the border police, where he was unblended and he was already in Azerbaijan, among Azerbaijani custom and law enforcement officers,” the advocate of Afgan Mukhtarl Archil Chopikashvili said. 

Several minutes before disappearance, Afgan Mukhtarl met his friend Dashgin Agalarl in the café in Baratashvili Street. Dashgin Agalarl recalled the developments of May 29. 

“Afgan called me at about 3 pm and asked meeting. He wanted to speak with me. He did not feel well. One more friend of us was with us, who left in half an hour. We met at about 5 pm and spent about 2 hours together, and parted at 7 pm. It was raining and my bus-stop was nearby. I asked Afgan not to walk home because it was raining. He saw me off and then continued his way through underground passage,” Dashgin Agalarl recalled. 

“I did not know what could happen. When I woke up in the morning, Afgan was not at home. I realized that something was wrong with him. I called people, who had contacted him on May 29. They said they had parted with him at about 7 pm. At that time on May 29, Afgan called me and asked what to bring home but he did not come. Afterwards, I could not reach him on the phone but I knew that his phone had problem with the battery and could gone flat. Next day I realized that something was really wrong,” Leyla Mustafaeva said. 

Several days after the incident, part of NGOs disseminated a statement, and human rights defenders expressed doubt that the Azerbaijani journalist could not have been arrested in the territory of Georgia and transported to Azerbaijan without at least demonstrative inactivity and ineffective work of the Georgian state institutions if not their support and direct participation in it. Among signatory organization is Human Rights House Tbilisi, whose members are Human Rights Center and Article 42, who provide the Azerbaijani activists with legal aid in Georgia.

“All circumstances in this fact demonstrate that representatives of the Georgian special services participated in his abduction. Apparently, they had secret cooperation. After this fact caused international scandal, the Georgian side denied any participation in the abduction. They just gave vague promises to investigate the incident. But we see that the investigation is deadlocked because the person was abducted as a result of secret cooperation,” said Aleko Tskitishvili, executive director of Human Rights Center.

Afgan Mukhtarl’s advocate Archil Chopikashvili said they mistrust the investigation because the prosecutor’s office did not grant victim status to Afgan and his family members. However, according to the advocate, they do not refuse to cooperate with the investigative bodies.

“The investigation was commenced to combat real investigation. Hundreds witnesses were questioned and the government officials boasted with it. However, those witnesses did not disclose any valuable information about the committed crime and case circumstances. It can be said that time and resources were wasted on their interrogation. The only video-recording which I watched showed a man in black who was watching Afgan. As soon as Afgan got on the taxi, this person also disappeared. I sent request letter to the investigation body to identify that person but no response so far. Later, as it was reported, the investigation could not open that video-recording,” Archil Chopikashvili said.

“I am sure the governments of the two countries cooperate [in this case]. Afgan was a burden for the Government of Georgia too. After the last [2016 parliamentary] elections, Afgan criticized Georgian Dream. Georgia supports and protects the authoritarian country. We expect official responses from the state institutions. But they do not have answers about Afgan’s abduction,” Leyla Mustafaeva said. 

Journalists organized a flash-mob during the session of the human rights committee in the Parliament of Georgia. They suddenly put sacks over their heads during the session and in this way protested the disappearance of the journalist in the democratic country of Georgia. They called on the legislative body to take effective steps. 

“Reputation of Georgia is humiliated” - the President of Georgia stated about the disappearance of Afgan Mukhtarl. He personally met Leyla Mustafaeva and her advocate and expressed readiness to grant Georgian citizenship to Leyla Mustafaeva and her daughter but she refused. Leyla Mustafaeva left Georgia several months ago. As she said she does not trust Georgia. 

“We are now in the regime of crisis management to improve the reputation of the State of Georgia. The accusations against the Georgian state shall be responded both inside and outside the country. Several days ago a man disappeared in Tbilisi and then turned up in Baku. How it could happen that a person disappeared in point A and was found in point B?!”the President Giorgi Margvelashvili stated.

“As the Head of Government, my primary task is to make sure that every question is answered in the shortest period of time. An investigation has been launched into this incident, and it serves our state's interests to ensure maximum transparency,” the Prime Minister of Georgia made this statement on June 3. Nevertheless, it is fact that more than 4 months have passed and the investigation is still going on and the society still has vague information about disappearance fact of the Azerbaijani journalist. 

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