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Freed Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli: “My arrest was replaced with exile”

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The Azerbaijani journalist was abducted in Tbilisi in 2017, arrested in Baku, and exiled to Berlin immediately after being released from the courtroom

Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was released on 17 March. In Azerbaijan, he is known for his investigative reporting on corruption at the top levels of the government. The story of the release of the journalist from prison generated as much public reaction and was as full of surprises as his arrest.

Mukhtarli went missing in Tbilisi on 29 May 2017. He settled down in Georgia's capital city in 2015 together with his wife Leyla Mustafayeva, also a journalist, and their little daughter in a bid to save himself from the Azerbaijani government. The next day it became known that Mukhtarli was in Baku and charged with illegally crossing the border, smuggling and offering resistance to police. The journalist said back then that he was abducted in the center of Tbilisi by several men, who tied him, beat him and pushed him into a car after putting a sack on his head. The journalist's close ones blamed it on the Azerbaijani and Georgian special services.

Giorgi Mgebrishvili, the then interior minister of Georgia, said they knew nothing about exactly how the journalist crossed the border. He said 343 witnesses were questioned, including 61 border guards in the Lagodekhi section of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, and that dozens of video recordings filmed in the streets of Tbilisi were examined, and all phone calls of the Azerbaijani journalist were checked. However, they never managed to find anything suspicious, related to violence against Mukhtarli or his abduction.

Shortly before being arrested, Mukhtarli said that he was chased but the Georgian government did not react. He said that since the beginning of 2017 Georgia had tried to drive out Azerbaijani political activists, journalists and human rights who had relocated to Georgia.

The Georgian government denied involvement in Mukhtarli's abduction and denied cooperating with the Azerbaijani special services. However, the chiefs of Georgia's counterintelligence and border service were dismissed from their posts after the incident.

In Azerbaijan, Mukhtarli was sentenced to six years in prison.

International human rights organizations declared the journalist a prisoner of conscience. In June 2018, the European Parliament passed a resolution on "The case of Afgan Mukhtarli and situation of media in Azerbaijan" that called on Baku to release the journalist and on Tbilisi to investigate his alleged abduction. The journalist, however, spent almost four years behind bars.

The public did not learn about the journalist's release from prison until after he boarded a plane bound for Berlin. Mukhtarli's wife and little daughter live in Berlin now. They left Georgia after Mukhtarli was arrested. Back then, Leyla Mustafayeva renounced Georgian citizenship, which former Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Mgebrishvili had offered her after her husband's abduction, and chose to settle down in Berlin.

In an interview with Meydan TV in Berlin after his release, Afgan Mukhtarli told us about reasons for his arrest, details of his abduction, and about why the Azerbaijani government decided to hastily send him to Berlin without letting him see his friends and close ones in Azerbaijan.

"While in Azerbaijan, I wrote about corruption on part of the ruling family and in different ministries, and embezzlement in the Armed Forces. In Georgia, I worked as a journalist, an investigative journalist, writing about how the Azerbaijani government invests in Georgia money that it steals from the Azerbaijani people. Those articles seriously worried both Azerbaijan and Georgia.

"Days before I was abducted, I gave an interview to Voice of America radio. I told them every single detail of how I would be handed over to the Azerbaijani government. I simply did not expect that it would be done in such a coarse manner. I thought it would be done on the basis of a court ruling. They, however, apparently decided that Georgia's judiciary was not completely under the government's control yet. It showed on the example of Dashgin Agalarli (an Azerbaijani emigre). Because Georgian courts found accusations levelled by the Azerbaijani government against Dashgin Agalarli to be absurd and granted him political asylum in Georgia. Apparently, taking that into account, the government handed me over to Azerbaijan using that illegal method. It also involved a bribe offered by Azerbaijan. Georgia was given a large bribe. When meeting with me, several senior officials in Azerbaijan told me that Georgia had received a bribe to the tune of more than 3 million USD. It was allegedly done by the former leadership of the National Security Ministry. However, in any case, it was the work of the Azerbaijani state. These kinds of decisions are made by Ilham Aliyev himself, not by a minister.

"It was an incorrect decision to abduct me, it was not even to the benefit of the government. They also put the Georgian government into jeopardy, very serious jeopardy, both in terms of its image and in terms of financial investments. International organizations had conducted numerous events there, and that generated major revenues for the tourism sector in Georgia. However, most international organizations stopped conducting events there and chose other countries."

"How were you treated in prison? Did you suffer any physical or mental abuse?"

"No, no, what was physical torture? From 29 May to 30 May, I was manacled. That is, after being abducted in Tbilisi and up until arriving at the Border Troops investigations department – for more than 24 hours – I had my hands manacled. I travelled from Tbilisi to Baku manacled and I spent the night manacled. That was physical torture. But I was not beaten or insulted or subjected to mental abuse.

"Media and also your friends and close ones reported that you went on a hunger strike. Why did you do it?"

"After meeting with me, my defense lawyer, Nemat Karimli, was assaulted by a deputy chief of the correctional facility, Emin Eminaliyev. They hit him and took documents away from him and gave those documents back to him after making copies of them. I was told so by prisoners who witnessed the incident. That is, I learnt about it not from Nemat Karimli, but from prisoners. I went on a hunger strike in protest against the incident. I did not eat for four days. I could not hunger strike for more than four days because I have diabetes and you cannot hunger strike for more than four days if you have diabetes. That's how long I was able to do it. It's not even that I was starving or feeling dizzy. I lost vision. I took freight that I would go blind and for this reason I ended the hunger strike."

"It was reported several times starting from last fall that they wanted to release you. Were those reports true?"

"Talk about it started when I obtained a new foreign passport while in prison. Then, representatives of the Azerbaijani government started visiting me. They said they wanted to release me. Also then, MPs from the Council of Europe, two MPs, met with me. Those visits continued until December. The Azerbaijani government was set to release me. Several court hearings were held. But they did not release me. And the last time I wrote an appeal, just a couple of sentences, asking to have my measure of restraint changed. And as I wrote that appeal, I thought that the same scenario as in December would repeat – that they would propose during a court hearing that the consideration of the case be rescheduled. I thought so. And, to be honest, I did not expect to be released, because I was told for six months that they would release me this time round, and they held hearings. But they did not release me. And this time round, I did not tell anyone… I did not tell even my friends in prison about it. I did not think it would happen. But suddenly they released me."

"Did it happen in one day?"

"I had written the appeal about a week earlier. But the court hearing and my release took a couple of hours. That is, the Azerbaijani government can do anything in a matter of minutes if it wants to."

"Tell us details of your release. How come you were flown to Germany after you were released? Who flew you there?"

"I was not released. The type of my penalty changed. That is, my arrest was replaced with exile. My foot never stepped on Azerbaijani soil. I got in a car at the correctional facility and got out of the car at the airport. They immediately put me on a plane.

"When they talked to me about my release, I said I wanted to stay in Azerbaijan at least for a while in order to see my mother, visit the village, and see my relatives. The person who talked to me said he was not authorized to discuss it with me and that he would inform authorized persons about the matter and that I would see [my family] if they gave me permission to do so. I do not know who those authorized persons were, but they did not give me permission."

"The news of your release came as a surprise for many people. Many did not learn about it until after you boarded the plane. Why do you think the government made a secret out of it?"

"The government did not want people to gather outside the correctional facility. It was afraid that many people might gather at the airport. They thought that if it happened, I might refuse to fly to Germany and would stay in Azerbaijan. They tried to handle the matter without creating needless problems for themselves. For this reason, they did not let that information spread. And even at the correctional facility a very limited number of people knew about it: the chief and a deputy chief.

"I am very curious as to what caused those fears. I am really curious. I did not meet anyone in prison. I could not meet with friends, I could not talk to them. Other political prisoners did not have that kind of a problem. Apparently… they [authorities] are very afraid."

"What plans do you have following your release?"

"Several of my investigations were left incomplete after my arrest. They continue to be important at present as well, and I will finish those investigations in a short while, after having a rest following my imprisonment that lasted three years."

/With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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Turkey may suspend ties with UAE over Israel deal, Erdogan says

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Turkey is considering suspending diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and withdrawing its ambassador over the Gulf state’s accord to normalize ties with Israel, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.The Turkish foreign ministry said history would never forgive the UAE’s “hypocritical behavior” in agreeing such a deal, which recasts the order of Middle East politics.Under the U.S.-brokered deal – the first between Israel and a Gulf Arab state – the Jewish state agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank which Palestinian leaders have denounced as a “stab in the back” to their cause.”The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers.”Now, Palestine is either closing or withdrawing its embassy. The same thing is valid for us now,” he said, stating that he’d given orders to his foreign minister.”I told him we may also take a step in the direction of suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador,” he added. Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics The Turkish Foreign Ministry had earlier said Palestinians were right to reject the deal in which the UAE betrayed their cause.”History and the conscience of the region’s peoples will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behavior,” it said. “It is extremely worrying that the UAE should, with a unilateral action, try and do away with the (2002) Arab Peace Plan developed by the Arab League.”Turkey has diplomatic and trade ties with Israel, but relations have been strained for years.In 2010 Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.The deal makes the UAE the third Arab country to establish full relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
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After Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s Erdogan turns another former church into mosque

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday ordered another ancient Orthodox church that became a mosque and then a popular Istanbul museum to be turned back into a place of Muslim worship.

The decision to transform the Kariye Museum into a mosque came just a month after a similarly controversial conversion for the UNESCO World Heritage-recognised Hagia Sophia.Both changes reflect Erdogan’s efforts to galvanise his more conservative and nationalist supporters at a time when Turkey is suffering a new spell of inflation and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.But the moves have added to Turkey’s problems with prelates in both the Orthodox and Catholic worlds.The Greek foreign ministry called the decision “yet another provocation against religious persons everywhere” by the Turkish government.’Steeped in history’               The 1,000-year-old Kariye building’s history closely mirrors that of the Hagia Sophia — its bigger and more famous neighbour on the western bank of the Golden Horn estuary on the European side of Istanbul.The Holy Saviour in Chora was a Byzantine church decorated with 14th-century frescoes of the Last Judgement that remain treasured in Christendom.It was originally converted into the Kariye Mosque half a century after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.It became the Kariye Museum after World War II as Turkey pushed ahead with the creation of a more secular new republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.A group of American art historians then helped restore the original church’s mosaics and opened them up for public display in 1958.But Erdogan is placing an ever greater political emphasis on the battles that resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans.Turkey’s top administrative court approved the museum’s conversion into a mosque in November.”It’s a place steeped in history which holds a lot of symbolism for a lot of different people,” said 48-year-old French tourist Frederic Sicard outside the building.”For me, (these conversions) are a little difficult to understand and to follow. But we would visit if it were a mosque. We might just have to arrange visits around prayer times.”‘Shame for our country’The sand-coloured structure visible today replaced a building created as a part of a monastery when Constantinople became the new capital of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.It features a minaret in one corner and small cascading domes similar to those of other grand mosques whose calls to prayer echo across the hills of Istanbul.But inside it is filled with magnificent frescoes and mosaics that represent some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in the Christian world.Turkey’s tumultuous efforts to reconcile these two histories form the underpinnings of the country’s contemporary politics and social life.Opposition HDP party lawmaker Garo Paylan called the transformation “a shame for our country”.”One of the symbols of our country’s deep, multicultural identity and multi-religious history has been sacrificed,” he tweeted.Ottoman Empire historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz called the conversion “destruction” because the building’s walls are lined with Christian art that would have to be either covered up or plastered over — as it was by the Ottomans.”It is impossible to hide the frescoes and mosaics because they decorate the entire building,” the historian told AFP.Yet some locals fully supported the change.”There are dozens, hundreds of churches, synagogues in Istanbul and only a few of them have been opened to prayer as mosques,” said Yucel Sahin as he strolled by the building after the morning rain.”There is a lot of tolerance in our culture.”(AFP)

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Turkey’s Erdogan announces historic natural gas discovery in Black Sea

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A handout photo made available by the Turkish President Press Office shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes part of a video conference with Turkish drilling vessel Fatih during a press conference as he announces the biggest natural gas discovery in history in Istanbul, Turkey, 21 August 2020. ISTANBUL: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkey had made a historic discovery of gas in the Black Sea, but would still speed up contentious exploration in the Mediterranean that has pitted it against Greece and the EU.Turkey hopes the discovery can help wean it off imported energy, including from Russia, which comes at a high cost at a time when the local currency is weakening and the economy is more fragile because of the coronavirus.Erdogan said the 320-billion-cubic-metre deep sea find was made at a site Turkish vessel Fatih began exploring last month.He added that he hoped to see the first gas reach Turkish consumers in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the modern republic.”Turkey made the biggest discovery of natural gas in its history in the Black Sea,” a delighted Erdogan said during a speech in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace.”My Lord has opened the door to unprecedented wealth for us,” he enthused.The Fatih, Turkey’s first drilling vessel, is named after Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople — current-day Istanbul — in 1453.The vessel made the discovery in the Tuna-1 field off the coast of Eregli town in the northern province of Zonguldak after beginning the search on July 20, Erdogan said.’Reasons to be cautious’The Turkish lira gained value against the dollar on Erdogan’s promise on Wednesday to report “good news” on Friday, but fell after the size of the find was less than half of that suggested in initial reports.Analysts were also wary of overplaying the discovery’s significance, pointing out that deep sea drilling is expensive and takes time.”There are reasons to be cautious,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.”For one thing, it will take time for the necessary infrastructure to be put in place before the gas can be extracted,” he said in a research note.Tuvey added “the boost to Turkey’s external position may only be temporary.”Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, tweeted the discovery was “not bad at all (but) not a game changer either.”The volume of gas announced by Erdogan would cover Turkey’s total natural gas needs for six years, at current consumption rates.High energy import billTurkish Finance Minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, speaking aboard the Fatih, said the discovery and future potential finds could reduce Turkey’s import-heavy trade balance by cutting its high energy import bill.Turkey’s energy import bill corresponded to two percent of total economic output last year, according to Capital Economics, with most purchases coming from Russia, Iran and Iraq.Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Authority said in January the country’s annual cost of energy imports was between $12 billion and $13 billion (10.2-11.1 billion euros).This month, Erdogan ordered the resumption of controversial energy exploration off the southern coast close to a Greek island in disputed eastern Mediterranean waters.The issue has put Turkey on a collision course with Greece, Cyprus and the European Union, and exacerbated tensions with France, which has stepped up its military presence in the region.But Erdogan showed no sign of yielding to the EU’s repeated call to immediately end the eastern Mediterranean search.”We will accelerate our activities in the Mediterranean with the deployment by the end of the year of (drilling ship) Kanuni, which is currently under maintenance,” he said.”God willing we expect similar good news,” Erdogan added.Turkey dispatched the seismic research ship Oruc Reis accompanied by warships to the region on August 10, angering Greece who said the move threatened peace.

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