Azerbaijani journalist against the “shadow ruler” of Georgia

Afghan Mukhtarli: “As long as Ivanishvili rules the country, I do not believe in an objective investigation into my kidnapping“.

On August 1, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Georgia began investigating the statement of former deputy head of the State Security Service Soso Gogashvili, who, among other things, claimed the involvement of the country’s authorities in the abduction of Azerbaijani journalist Afghan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi in 2017.

Gogashvili, who was detained in mid-July on charges of disclosing intelligence information, claimed in a letter he wrote from the Rustavi prison on July 26 that Mukhtarli was kidnapped on orders from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, who is also considered Georgia’s “shadow ruler.”

Journalist Afghan Mukhtarli, who had a residence permit in Georgia and had been living in Tbilisi for the past several years, “disappeared” on May 29, 2017. His wife Leila Mustafayeva reported that Afgan, who had gone shopping in the evening, had not returned home that night. The next day, she found out that Mukhtarli was in a Baku prison.

As the journalist himself later stated, he was kidnapped in the centre of Tbilisi by several people, tied up, beaten, and pushed into a car with a bag over his head, brought to the border and extradited to Azerbaijan. In addition, ten-thousand euros were planted in his pocket. The Azerbaijani government charged him with illegal border crossing, smuggling, and resisting official orders. He was sentenced to six years in prison on these charges. The journalist’s relatives immediately claimed that the Azerbaijani and Georgian special services were behind the incident.

Gogashvili claims that all the evidence in Afgan Mukhtarli’s case was destroyed by the State Security Service’s Operational-Technical Department (OTD), whose function is to conduct confidential investigative activities. In particular, the video surveillance tapes were deleted.

“Bidzina’s order – the abduction of Mukhtarli by ‘probes’ – has also been deleted by the OTD”, claims the letter published on Gogashvili’s Facebook page.

Afghan Mukhtarli himself, who is currently living in Germany after being released from an Azerbaijani prison, immediately reacted to this information on his Facebook page. “Soso Gogashvili, as the deputy head of the Georgian Security Service, knows all the details of the operation aimed at kidnapping me. We will get him to testify at the prosecutor’s office,” Mukhtarli wrote.

Soso Qoqaşvili illustrasiya
Former deputy head of the Georgian State Security Service, Soso Gogashvili. Illustration: Meydan TV

“The Georgian government has chosen the worst of the options”

“Soso Gogashvili’s statement was not news to me, – Mukhtarli told Meydan TV in an interview. – As you know, both during the investigation in Baku, where I found myself after the kidnapping, and during the trials I said that I had been kidnapped by a person who held the highest position in Georgia. I repeatedly declared that I was kidnapped by Ivanishvili and then Prime Minister Kvirikashvili because four different state agencies were involved in my kidnapping. First of all they were the criminal police of the Ministry of Interior, employees of the State Security Service, as well as the head of Lagodekhi customs checkpoint and employees of the checkpoint who were on duty on that day. These four institutions would not have been able to kidnap a person without orders from the country’s leadership. And in a statement of Soso Gogashvili I was surprised only that the high-ranking official admitted the crime in which he himself was involved. I was only surprised by the confession itself”. 

Afghan Mukhtarli also recalls events five years ago:

“About a week or 10 days before my abduction, in my interview with the Voice of America, I said that I might be arrested by the Georgian government and handed over to the Azerbaijani side. I was free at the time. But I just did not expect to be kidnapped. I thought I would be arrested and extradited. But I was kidnapped, so the Georgian government chose the worst possible option”.

Mukhtarli also said that together with his Georgian lawyer Archil Chopikashvili they have already filed petitions to involve Gogashvili, Ivanishvili and the then head of the State Security Service Vakhtang Gomelauri, who now serves as Georgian Interior Minister, in the investigation:

Afqan illustrasiya
Afghan Mukhtarli. Illustration: Meydan TV

“In his letter Soso Gogashvili writes that Vakhtang Gomelauri, then head of the State Security Service and now Georgia’s Interior Minister, directly supervised my kidnapping. All the surveillance footage was deleted on Ivanishvili’s order. I immediately contacted my lawyer, and he filed a petition”.

“We also demanded Gogashvili’s safety so that suicide or something like that wouldn’t happen. As it happens sometimes, and we all know that” Chopikashvili told Meydan TV. 

At last, Mukhtarli and his lawyer demand a real and objective investigation in Georgia.

“It’s been six years since Mukhtarli’s arrest, and the Georgian side still can’t explain how a man from central Tbilisi ended up in an Azerbaijani prison”, – says the lawyer.

Mukhtarli also demands the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia:

“The position held by this man and his proximity to Ivanishvili makes it doubtful that there will be a fair investigation, since I was kidnapped by his entourage. And I demand that he resign voluntarily. We are already in touch with the deputies of the European Parliament. We will demand the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs at the international level. And I hope that we will achieve it. Until this man resigns, the prosecutor’s office will not investigate. Anyway, as long as Ivanishvili is in power, as long as the Georgian Dream rules, I don’t believe in conducting an objective investigation by the prosecutor’s office”. 

After Afghan’s arrest in Baku, then-Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia, Giorgi Mgebrishvili, said they knew nothing about how exactly the journalist crossed the border. According to him, 343 witnesses were interrogated, including 61 border guards at Lagodekhi section of Georgian-Azerbaijani border, dozens of video tapes from the streets of Tbilisi were seized and all phone calls of the Azerbaijani journalist were checked. But nothing suspicious related to violence or Mukhtarli’s kidnapping has been revealed.

The Georgian authorities denied any involvement in Mukhtarli’s kidnapping and cooperation with the Azerbaijani secret service. Nevertheless, after the incident, the heads of Georgian counterintelligence and border guards were removed from their posts.

Arçil Çopikaşvili
Lawyer Archil Chopikashvili. Illustration: Meydan TV

Afghan Mukhtarli was released from the Azerbaijani prison in March 2020.

International human rights organizations declared the journalist a prisoner of conscience. In June 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “The Mukhtarli case and the situation of journalists in Azerbaijan,” calling on Baku to release the journalist and on Tbilisi to investigate his alleged abduction. However, he spent four years behind bars.

The public became aware of the journalist’s release from prison after he was on a plane on his way to Berlin. The authorities carefully concealed information about his release.

“I didn’t go free, the type of my punishment was changed. That is, the arrest was replaced by exile, – Mukhtarli explained to Meydan TV in his first video interview in Berlin after his release – My foot never touched Azerbaijani soil. I got into a car at the penitentiary, got out of the car at the airport. And I was immediately put on a plane. When they talked to me about my release, I said that I wanted to stay in Azerbaijan at least for a while, to see my mother, to visit the village, to meet my relatives. The person who talked to me said that he had no authority to discuss this with me, but he would bring this issue to the attention of authorized persons. If authorized, you will meet with them. I don’t know who the commissioners were, but they didn’t allow it”.

And now he lives in Germany with his wife and daughter.

Gogashvili’s “ace up his sleeve”

“During the three years I was behind bars, I was a witness in my kidnapping case. After I got out of prison I tried to come to Georgia once. But the Georgian government cancelled my ticket. I went through customs and passport control, but when the boarding was announced, it turned out that my ticket had been cancelled. The Georgian government did not allow me to come to Georgia. At the same time, the speaker of the Georgian Parliament said that ‘Afghan Mukhtarli wanted to come to disturb the internal stability in Georgia, what is the point of him coming to Georgia?’ – Mukhtarli tells.

Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia, Vakhtang Gomelauri. Illustration: Meydan TV.

According to the journalist, the European Court of Human Rights intervened in the case, after which he was allowed into Georgia at the second attempt. That was at the beginning of April 2021.

“In Georgia, they kept me at the airport for more than an hour, questioned me, but then let me into the country, Afghan continues his story. – I came to Georgia and testified – how I was kidnapped, on which road I was taken. And before that I spent ten hours testifying to the German police at the request of the Georgian prosecutor’s office. And I spent more than ten hours testifying in Georgia. Where I was abducted, in which direction I was driven, in which territory they took me out of the car, removed the bag from my head and put a bandage over my eyes – I gave a detailed account of all this and showed it to the prosecutor’s office and I was recognized as a victim. But after I left Georgia neither my lawyer nor I was given any information about the investigation. And now we are finding out why. Because this crime was committed by Ivanishvili’s order. And it was led by the person who is now the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia”.

“As the lawyers say, Gogashvili’s letter describes everything in detail. As far as I know, all this has not yet been released to the press. They are waiting to pass it on to the investigation. And its release to the press may result in the disclosure of the investigation’s secrets and hinder the course of the case. And I believe that the testimony will be taken. Georgia is a much more democratic country compared to Azerbaijan, – Nemat Kerimli, the Azerbaijani lawyer of Afgan Mukhtarli, believes.

Lawyer Archil Chopikashvili agrees that Gogashvili may have an “ace up his sleeve”.

“We think he’s going to do more than just make a statement. He has some additional evidence of what he said. He may have some materials, additional witnesses. I think he will not stop at this statement,” says the lawyer.

“The time will come to Azerbaijan as well”

Afghan Mukhtarli and his Georgian lawyer, who have not yet received an official response to their petition, nevertheless perceive the statement of the General Prosecutor’s Office about the beginning of the investigation on Gogashvili’s application as a partial satisfaction of their request.

“The prosecutor’s office will take testimony from Gogashvili. But if our petition is not granted in full, we will continue our case and present it as another fact to the European Court of Human Rights,” Mukhtarly declares.

In his Facebook page, Afgan Mukhtarli also wrote that “time will come for the kidnappers in Azerbaijan as well”.

Bidzina İvanişvili
Billionaire and founder of the Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Illustration: Meydan TV.

“The people who kidnapped me in Georgia handed me over in the neutral zone to Elchin Guliyev, assistant head of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan, and the assistant commander of the border troops. From there they took me to the outpost of the border troops in the village of Mazandara, Balaken district, — explains Afghan in an interview with Meydan TV. – And the Azerbaijani government’s involvement in my is indisputable. During the investigation and the trial, it was the officers, warrant officers and soldiers of the border service who slandered me. There is another point here – Azerbaijan paid 3 million USD to Georgia. In this regard I testified at the prosecutor’s office of Georgia. I am not naming names because it is a secret of the investigation, but this person holds quite a high position in Azerbaijan. After my release it turned out that one of the opposition deputies in the Georgian parliament also said that Azerbaijan had paid a bribe of 3 million USD.

“Azerbaijan has not yet given any response. And in my opinion, it will not yet,” believes Nemat Karimli. – The country will respond when the investigation starts, and new details are revealed. Journalists will write again, and the prosecution will make some statement. And if Ivanishvili testifies in any form as well, the iceberg will break up. And after all this, there will be some statements from Azerbaijan too, in which they will try to defend themselves. 

We agreed with Afghan to wait for developments in Georgia. And then we will apply to the prosecutor’s office to conduct an investigation. If I’m not mistaken, according to Article 206 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Azerbaijan, the law enforcement agencies have to start investigations in connection with the information covered in the press. That information has already been published in our media as well. That’s why the prosecutor’s office should take the initiative and start investigating. But they don’t. But we will in the future”.

With the support of Mediaset.

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