MEPs demand Afgan Mukhtarli’s release, but EU’s Hahn courts Baku regime

by Jane Whyatt

The European Parliament has denounced the state kidnapping of journalist Afghan Mukhtarli. The roles of Azerbaijan, (where he is now in pre-trial detention) and of Georgia, (where he was snatched in the street and taken by force to the Azeri capital Baku), are both highlighted in a three-page, strongly-worded condemnation.

Because of the serious concern expressed, the future relationship of the EU to both states is called into question. Georgia recently agreed a visa liberalisation programme EU-Georgia association agreement (including free trade) entered into force on 1 July 2016, the visa liberation programme on 28 March 2017. (This is just short of candidate status.) Meanwhile Azerbaijan is negotiating a comprehensive agreement, launched with the visit to Brussels of President Ilham Aliyev on 6th February 2017.

First reactions in Baku are highly negative. President Aliyev’s aide Ali Hazarov says the resolution is ‚unfair’ and the deputy speaker of parliament Ziyafat Asgarov commented that it ’seemed to be based on unverified facts’. Asgarov also called it ’biased and malicious’.

The parliamentary resolution came on the eve of EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s visit to Baku. He was preparing the Euronest summit due to be held in November with Azerbaijan and other Eastern Partnership countries.

Ahead of the mission, Commissioner Hahn said:

“I am visiting Azerbaijan, an important partner for the European Union, to discuss the Eastern Partnership Summit and how to best broaden and deepen our co-operation in the near future. The European Union is ready to support Azerbaijan with its efforts to achieve substantial economic and democratic transformation, involving civil society in this process”

Strategic gas project

Interviewed by the official Azerbaijani news agency APA, Johannes Hahn is quoted as saying that the Southern Gas Corridor and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway projects are strategic and important for the European Union. The gas project, created by the EU and managed by Britain’s BP, will bring oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, with two other pipelines supplying Albania, Greece and Italy. It aims to reduce Europe’s dependence on gas from Russia.

The APA interviewer Malahat Najafova also quotes Hahn expressing the EU’s concern about corruption:

“Azerbaijan’s efforts in fighting against corruption will certainly make a positive contribution towards an attractive business climate, as the respect for the rule of law is one of the determining factors in it.“

The kidnapped journalist Afgan Mukhtarli moved to Georgia because his work investigating corruption in Azerbaijan had resulted in his colleague Khadija Ismayilova being sent to jail for seven years and he did not feel safe in his homeland.

Commissioner Hahn’s office gave ECPMF this statement: “He addressed his concerns regarding the Mukhtarli case openly towards the Azerbaijani authorities during his mission to the country. The EP resolution just underlines this common concern. Democracy and HR are at the core of our cooperation with Azerbaijan as well as with other partner countries.“

’Grave breach of law’

In Strasbourg the resolution was initiated by an all-party group of six MPs from Germany, UK, Spain, Italy, Romania and Lithuania. They are all members of the parliament’s Human Rights committee. Its supporters include the First Vice President Mairead McGuinness and Elmar Brok, the chair of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

German Green MEP Rebecca Harms and Ireland’s Sean Kelly made impassioned speeches and Pavel Telicka of the Czech Republic argued strongly that the resolution should not be postponed until after the visit to Baku of EU commissioner Johannes Hahn.

The MEPs made 17 demands, including strongly condemning the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli as ’a grave act of breach of law’. They urge the Georgian authorities to ensure a prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation into Mukhtarli’s kidnap and to clarify beyond all doubt the suspicion regarding the involvement of Georgian state agents.

They call for the Azerbaijani authorities to drop all bogus charges against Mukhtarli, and release him. He is charged with illegally crossing the national border and smuggling 100,00 euros.

In addition, the MEPs add a long list of independent journalists and human rights defenders who have been incarcerated and the blogger Mehman Galandrov whose death in custody in April 2017 remains unexplained.

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