At around 7 p.m. on May 29, Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani activist and journalist living in self-imposed exile in Tbilisi, rang his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva. Mukhtarli said he was on his way home after meeting a friend at a cafe in the Georgian capital. He never showed up. The next day, although his passport remained in Tbilisi, updates on social media reported that Mukhtarli was instead in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he faced charges for resisting arrest, illegally crossing the border and smuggling 10,000 euros ($11,663) into the country.
Alarm bells rang among other Azerbaijani activists and journalists who had come to call Tbilisi home. Earlier the same month in Baku, Eynulla Fatullayev, a former prisoner of conscience now known to critics as a "government attack dog," had published an editorial on the Azerbaijani dissident community living in Georgia, alleging that it was planning to overthrow Azerbaijan's president. The piece mentioned Mukhtarli's name, along with those of a dozen other Azerbaijanis. Tbilisi, Fatullayev claimed, was acting against the interests of Azerbaijan, and he called on the Georgian government to expel "the underground from its own borders."
That, Mustafayeva believes, is precisely what happened to her husband.
Others agreed. At least four other Azerbaijanis whom Fatullayev named in his column have since left Georgia for Germany and the Netherlands. And, often at odds with his colleagues in government, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili also seems unconvinced by the official explanation for Mukhtarli's disappearance, though the largely symbolic powers of his office leave him little recourse in the matter. "How is it possible to disappear in Tbilisi and find yourself in Baku?" Margvelashvili quipped, adding that the answer might better be found with help from American magician and illusionist David Copperfield. "The disappearance of a person from the territory of Georgia by any means is a serious challenge to our sovereignty and statehood," he told journalists.
Yet five months later, the case remains a mystery. The investigation also appears to have been put on hold, ostensibly pending access to the accused, who is in pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan. As a result, details of Mukhtarli's disappearance are sketchy. Initial reports stated that men speaking Georgian and dressed in civilian clothing were responsible for snatching the 43-year-old Mukhtarli from the street, but allegations later emerged that at least one of them was wearing a Georgian police uniform. Furthermore, though Georgia's borders with its neighbors are porous in places, Mukhtarli's lawyer says he was transferred into Azerbaijani custody at the border crossing in Lagodekhi.
Attempts to verify this report have proved difficult. Georgian authorities claim the closed-circuit television cameras at the border crossing with Azerbaijan were not functioning on the night of Mukhtarli's disappearance. "That's very suspect," says Dave Bloss, the Tbilisi-based regional editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP), an investigative journalism platform involved with the recent Panama and Paradise Papers releases, and a former country director for media programs with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Bloss explained:
"A lot of money has been spent on border security over the years and even if one camera isn't working it's quickly fixed. I've no proof, but it's not credible that several cameras were out at the same time. It's the Azerbaijan-Georgia border close to Russia so we're also talking Dagestan and Chechnya. It's strategic. Are all your cameras going to go down at the same time?"
Security cameras in Tbilisi have raised some eyebrows, too. Bloss said the OCCRP called in Vlad Lavrov to take a look at the footage from cameras along the route Mukhtarli would have taken to get home the night of May 29. Lavrov, a Ukrainian journalist, previously had helped piece together surveillance footage in the case of Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist killed by a car bomb in Kiev in July 2016. Both Lavrov and Bloss concluded that the footage purportedly documenting Mukhtarli's walk home had been tampered with. "When we looked at it," Bloss said, "what was supposed to be a sequence had its timing off by several minutes. The weather also abruptly changed from cloudy to clear."
Adding to speculation that Georgian officials might have been involved in Mukhtarli's alleged abduction, Georgia's interior minister dismissed the heads of the country's border police and counter-intelligence service in connection with the case. Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe specializing in the Caucasus, expressed his own concerns in an opinion piece published at the end of July. "This outrageous act was almost certainly done to please Georgia's rich and powerful neighbor [Azerbaijan] with the connivance or full cooperation of elements of the Georgian security services and without the knowledge of senior figures in the government," he wrote, quoting an anonymous diplomat who said the incident represented a "'lack of political oversight of the security services.'" A month earlier, an Azerbaijani lawmaker had applauded what he called a "joint effort of the Georgian and Azerbaijani security agencies," during an interview with Radio Free Europe's Azerbaijani Service. Georgia's state security service was quick to deny the alleged collaboration in an official statement.
At the same time, however, the Georgian Ministry of the Interior and the Prosecutor's Office of Georgia have refused to recognize Mukhtarli and his family as victims, thereby preventing Mustafayeva from receiving updates on his case. The Office of the Public Defender of Georgia, meanwhile, said that nearly a month after requesting an update on the case, it still hasn't received a reply, though, by law, it should have gotten a response within 10 days. A representative also said the office harbored serious concerns "regarding the length and effectiveness of the investigation, legal qualification of the case and the granting of victim status to Mukhtarli."
The case has drawn its share of international scrutiny, as well. The U.S. Embassy and the EU Delegation in Tbilisi have called for a "timely and transparent" investigation into Mukhtarli's abduction. In addition, the European Parliament passed a resolution strongly condemning "the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi and his subsequent arbitrary detention in Baku," calling the incident a "serious violation of human rights" and a "grave act of breach of law."
Harlem Desir, the Representative for Freedom of the Media at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also highlighted the case's importance. "During my recent official visit [in October] to Georgia I raised Afghan Mukhtarli's case with the authorities and urged them to complete the investigation on the journalist's abduction," he said by email. "I continue to follow further developments in the case closely and will seek ways to contribute to Mukhtarli's release."
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have spoken out about the case, too, while Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus Director for Human Rights Watch, has frequently voiced his concerns. "Georgia needs to abide by its obligations to protect people who are seeking refuge, including those from Azerbaijan," he said. "In light of the Mukhtarli case and other developments, there are grounds for concern about pressure by Azerbaijan on Georgia to stop providing a safe haven for Azerbaijani dissidents."
Mukhtarli's case is not the first of its kind in Georgia. In 2016, another Azerbaijani journalist in self-imposed exile, Gulnur Kazimova, claimed that she was under surveillance from the country's security services and alleged that a report she submitted to the police was altered. Facing prosecution in Azerbaijan and concerned for her safety in Georgia, Kazimova left for Germany with her family the same month that Mukhtarli was allegedly abducted.
Another prominent Azerbaijani figure, Dashgin Aghalari, faced pressure while seeking political asylum in Georgia, having fled to Tbilisi from exile in Turkey, where he faced the threat of extradition to Azerbaijan. By the time his son had joined him in Georgia, the Georgian Ministry of Refugees recognized that the two would face persecution on political grounds if they returned to Baku. Nevertheless, the ministry declined to grant them asylum because their presence "contradict[ed] the interests of the country."
Those interests, critics argue, are economic. Over the first seven months of this year, trade between Azerbaijan and Georgia amounted to $425 million. Azerbaijan was also Georgia's main foreign investor for the first quarter of 2017 and, along with Turkey, it is a partner in key regional projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the recently inaugurated Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (Georgia financed the latter project with nearly $800 million in low-interest loans from the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan.)
Ghia Nodia, a regional analyst and director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, questions whether these ties alone would compel Georgia to hand political dissidents living within its borders over to the Azerbaijani government. "I understand that close relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey are extremely important for Georgia," he said, "but I think it's an exaggeration to say that [the Georgian government] doesn't have a choice in these matters." Nodia noted that Georgia also closed two schools affiliated with exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, reportedly under pressure from Ankara, and arrested the manager of one of the institutions. Even so, he argued:
"Good relations with Georgia are also important for Azerbaijan and Turkey, so leverage is mutual. I doubt that getting Mukhtarli or closing the … college are of such utmost importance for Azerbaijan and Turkey respectively that they would jeopardize an important geopolitical partnership with Georgia had it taken a firmer position."
Whatever the story behind Mukhtarli's arrest, a preliminary date for the start of his trial in Azerbaijan is set for Nov. 30, according to Bloss. It's unclear whether authorities in Tbilisi will have completed and released the details of their own investigation by then. But many people, including Nodia, are skeptical:
"My general impression is that the government does not have any interest in investigating anything, either because it is itself implicated in the abduction, which I find quite possible, or because it does not want to complicate relations with Baku by saying that the Azerbaijani secret services abducted a person from downtown Tbilisi. This is both embarrassing and politically problematic, so they are just dragging their feet hoping that the incident will eventually be forgotten."
As the response from the international community suggests, however, that day may never come. According to Bloss, the U.S. Department of State has taken an interest in the case from the very start and has followed its developments closely. "I don't get the sense that they'll forget about it," he added. "This issue is not going away."
This piece has been updated to reflect the preliminary start date of Mukhtarli's trial.