Is Georgia still a safe haven for Azerbaijani dissidents?

Europe views Azerbaijan as a strategically important partner, because of its vast energy resources and critical location. The EU lacks leverages when it comes to Azerbaijan, this is the main reason why the EU is not too demanding and is sustaining Azerbaijan’s authoritarian stability.

While the Azerbaijani government publicly embraces its international human rights obligations and regularly promotes itself within international bodies, recent years have been particularly tough in regards to fundamental human rights in Azerbaijan. Journalists pay an implausible price for government criticism. The Republic of Azerbaijan amended its legislation since 2009 in order to restrict rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. In 2011, the Baku offices of the Human Rights House Azerbaijan, partner of the international Human Rights House Network, and National Democratic Institute (NDI) were closed by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice. Because of the crackdown of the human rights defenders and activists in summer 2014 many of them were arrested or had to flee Azerbaijan, many decided to find safe haven in Georgia.  

Georgian-Azerbaijani relations are characterized as “time-tested friendship”. Each country identifies the other as a strategic partner. Strategic partnership of these two countries is based on pragmatism. They cooperate in many fields, including military. Georgia enabled Azerbaijan to deliver its energy resources to the European market. Azerbaijan supplies around 90% of Georgia’s gas imports. Their economic partnership solidified their political relationship.

Even though for years Georgia served as a safe harbor for Azerbaijani dissidents, recent occurrences show that Georgia is not as safe anymore. There are doubts that Georgia cannot resist pressure applied by its important strategic partner. In 2016 two journalists Gunel Movlud and Haji Hajiyev were forced to leave Georgia after 3 years of living there, because a residence permit was not granted. The same happened to the activist Dashqin Agalarli. Another case is that of Jamal Ali, opposition rapper and journalist, who was denied entry to Georgia.

Afgan Mukhtarli was one of many Azerbaijani HRDs, lawyers and journalists who sought safe haven in Georgia. He fled to Georgia in 2015 with his wife and was living with a legal residence permit. He is known for reporting on the corruption of Azerbaijani authorities and his cooperation with the investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova. Afgan Mukhtarli disappeared from Tbilisi on 29th of May and on the following day, he was found in custody in Baku with charges of “illegal border crossing, currency violation and disorderly conduct”. He has been sentenced to a 90-day pre-trial detention. According to Afgan Mukhtarli, those who arrested him in Georgia were speaking Georgian among themselves.

The abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli was protested by Georgian journalists, NGOs and human rights defenders. Mukhtarli’s wife Leila Mustafaeva, also opposition journalist, refused Georgian citizenship offered by PM after the incident. She was denied residence permit in 2016, on the premise of state Law on Migration.

European Parliament has adopted a resolution on the case of Afgan Mukhtarli. They urged the Azerbaijani government to release Mukhtarli immediately and stated that if Georgia does not conduct comprehensive investigation it would severely violate the “spirit of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement and European values and principles and severely damage the reputation and credibility of Georgia on the international scene.” The US government also issued a statement, condemning the incident and declaring that they closely follow the Georgian investigation.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili issued the special statement declaring that Georgian law enforcement is actively cooperating with international organizations and diplomatic corps and that Georgia is democratic, constitutional state aspiring to join European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, sharing their values, upholding the rule of law, and protecting human rights.  “We will in no way give up this achievement, and we will spare no effort to protect the rights of every individual regardless of their citizenship or political affiliation.”- says the statement.

 

Nina Natroshvili

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