The government of Azerbaijan has become known for its relentless crackdown on civil society and political dissent. 2014 marked a notable escalation in the systematic dismantling of civil society institutions and dozens of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists were detained. Although many of those rounded up in 2014 have since been released, Azerbaijan continues to use its legal and criminal justice system to keep tight control over public space and silence critical voices. Today, local activists record more than 100 political prisoners, and as authorities tighten their grip, the government has eradicated the country’s once vibrant and active civil society, having a devastating chilling effect on civic engagement. Since the 2014 crackdown started, many Azerbaijani activists and journalists have left the country for fear of persecution. Among other countries in Europe, neighbouring Georgia became a popular destination due to its proximity, historically liberal immigration policy, and NGO-friendly environment. However, the close relationship between the governments of Azerbaijan and Georgia has put Azerbaijani exiles at a high risk, especially after 2016.
The two neighbouring countries engage in substantial trade and closely cooperate on security issues. Both are highly interested in limiting Russia’s influence and economic domination. The Azerbaijani government has invested more than USD 2.1 billion in the Georgian economy since 1997 and supplies 90 percent of the country’s natural gas. In 2016, Azerbaijan’s investments accounted for 35 percent of the total volume of foreign direct investment to Georgia. The completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines in 2006 as well as the anticipated construction of the Southern Gas Corridor – a USD 45 billion project scheduled for completion in 2020 that will deliver natural gas from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, directly to Europe – is especially important for the symbiotic relationship. The authorities’ alleged collusion in the recent abduction of the Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia to Azerbaijan had a chilling effect on the exile community in Georgia. Afgan was abducted in Tbilisi in May 2017 and resurfaced two days later in Baku facing a slew of specious charges. He alleges that Georgian speaking men in police uniform kidnapped, beat him, and drove him to the border, where they handed him over to Azerbaijani officials. These claims raise significant questions for the Georgian authorities and it is crucial that the Chief Prosecutor Office, which is tasked with investigating Afgan’s case, conducts the investigation effectively and makes the results public.
The NGOs jointly issuing this report are also concerned about allegations that journalists Gulnur Kazimova and Afgan’s wife Leyla Mustafayeva, as well as political activists Vidadi Isgenderli and Dashgin Aghalarli, whose cases are included in this report, and other Azerbaijani exiles have been followed, harassed, threatened, and at least in one case, attacked by unknown individuals in Georgia who they presumed were agents of the Azerbaijani government.1 The Georgian authorities have failed to investigate such allegations effectively. Indeed, the authors of this report did not find a single case where incidents reported by Azerbaijani exiles resulted in the identification, let alone the arrest of the perpetrator. One Azerbaijani exile also alleged to have been subjected to surveillance by the Georgian authorities.