Jailed journalist’s appeals rejected as Georgians demand inquiry into his capture

By Jane Whyatt, Meydan TV

A court hearing has rejected requests from defence lawyers representing Afgan Mukhtarli, the investigative reporter serving a six-year jail term in Azerbaijan.

Mukhtarli was seized and taken to Azerbaijan from the Georgian capital Tblisi, and thirty-five civil society organisations are demanding an independent, international inquiry.

Afgan Mukhtarli sentenced to six years in jail Afgan Mukhtarli. Photo: Meydan TV

After the hearing on 20th February 2018, defence lawyer Elchin Sadigov told Meydan TV they had asked the court to release Afgan Mukhtarli to house arrest and to let him out of the courtroom cage during the hearing.

The lawyer also requested that the case be moved back to the Balakan District Court to consider a complaint the defence had about violations in the protocols of courtroom hearings. 

All of the defence's motions were rejected by the court. The court will convene again to consider Afgan's appeal on 2 March at 10:00 am.

However, following diplomatic moves and pressure from the UK Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, Afgan Mukhtarli was allowed to attend the memorial service in memory of his sister and two nieces who died on New Year’s Eve 2017, apparently because of a gas leak, in unexplained circumstances.

Interviewed on Georgian TV

In his home village, with his grieving relatives, Afgan Mukhtarli received two visitors from Georgia. Travelling incognito, Rustavi 2 TV reporter Tengo Gogotishvili and his camera operator managed to secretly film an interview with the journalist. They shot the interview on a mobile phone and small camera in the early hours of the morning. Afgan Mukhtarli describes what happened when he was abducted on the street in Tblisi and driven to Azerbaijan.

Another reporter was also present at the family home: Khadija Ismayilova, Mukhtarli's former colleague from Radio Liberty who was herself sentenced to seven and a half years in jail - but released after an international outcry.

Rustavi 2 TV broadcast the interviews and shared them on YouTube with subtitles in English. The TV report includes footage of Georgian ministers insisting that they are undertaking a full investigation. But the prison guards had been alerted and took Mukhtarli back to prison 24 hours before his period of compassionate leave to attend the memorial service was due to end.

Following the broadcast in Georgia, thirty-five media outlets and civil society organisations (CSOs) have written to both the Parliament and the Chief Prosecutor, demanding explanations. Their letter says: 

We call on the Parliament of Georgia to establish a temporary investigative commission and ensure effective parliamentary control over the Afgan Mukhtarli case. At the same time, we urge the Chief Prosecutor’s Office to engage international investigators/experts in the process of investigation, and to ensure high accountability and transparency in the process.

The letter was co-ordinated through Article 42, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for the rule of law, as established in Article 42 of Georgia’s constitution.  Read the full text of the letter here 

In their letter, the organisations point out that there is reason to believe evidence is being withheld. Footage from private CCTV cameras that recorded the moment when Afgan Mukhtarli was seized and bundled into a car with a bag over his head is not available. Nor are the CCTV video recordings from the Ministry of Internal Affairs cameras at the border crossing post. Apparently none of the cameras were switched on in either location, claims the letter.

Georgia’s elected Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze has asked the Azerbaijan authorities for permission to interview Afgan Mukhtarli. The case was transferred to his office on 20th July 2017, when this statement was issued: “ Every relevant investigative and procedural action will be carried out in relation to the case, also, every person who might have any connection to the aforementioned case will be interviewed. We would like to remind society that the investigation into the case is launched under Article 143 (illegal imprisonment) of the Criminal Code of Georgia.“   

Hundreds of witnesses have been interviewed, but without any concrete results and six months after the Chief Prosecutor took it over, the investigation seems to have stalled.

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