Thirty-One Hours in the Baku Airport: A Q&A with Human-Rights Expert Giorgi Gogia

Human Rights Watch’s South-Caucasus representative Giorgi Gogia spoke with about his March 30-31 detention in Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Gogia, a frequent critic of the Azerbaijani government’s civil-rights record, had been travelling to observe the trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov. The Azerbaijani government, as yet, has not provided a reason for Gogia's detention and subsequent deportation to neighboring Georgia, the country of which he is a citizen.

With such detentions increasingly common in Azerbaijan, met with Gogia in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to hear his side of the story:

EN: What happened when you arrived in Baku?

Gogia: I flew into Baku at about 1:30 on Monday afternoon [on March 30, 2015].

When I gave my passport to the border-control officer, he unthinkingly stamped it like they probably often do when they see a Georgian passport. But then something appeared to turn up on his computer screen, and he went pale. He called to some other people, and they began making calls, while I was asked to step aside.

Then they took me back through security control, took me to the transit zone and said ‘Sit here.’ They would end up taking me back and forth through security control three times on that day, and each time I had to take off my belt and shoes, and each time they went through my bag.

EN: Were you given any explanation?

Gogia: To my enquiries, they would simply respond “Mы изучаем" [We are studying this]. Time and again, they asked me: “Who are you? What is this organization you are working for? Have you been here before?” And I told them that I was there to attend the trials of [imprisoned] human-rights defenders Intigam Aliyev [a human-rights lawyer imprisoned in August 2014 and facing charges of alleged tax evasion, illegal business activities, abuse of power, embezzlement and misappropriation of funds] and Rasul Jafarov [an activist imprisoned in August 2014 and facing charges of alleged tax evasion, illegal business activities,abuse of power,embezzlement and forgery -- ed].

There was not much I could do for Intigam and Rasul other than just be there for them, to show solidarity. The trials would probably be included in my reports on the human-rights situation in Azerbaijan.

As they kept making calls, it was clear they were trying to decide what to do to me. When I said I had to use the facilities, one official followed me there.
As the hours went by, I was asked if I had eaten anything yet. “Here’s a pizza place,” I was told.

EN: At that point, did you tell your work or the Georgian embassy about your situation?

Gogia: I did. I had two phones, American and Georgian. We [at Human Rights Watch] decided not to go public with it quite yet.* With all the arrests in Azerbaijan, we thought that it may make things worse for me. I hoped that they would still eventually let me in and I’d get the opportunity to attend the trials.

But then two of my minders disappeared, and I was left with this guy who did not speak Russian or English. Then, even he left. It was getting late and the airport became empty.

After some communication with the Georgian consulate and their communications with the Azerbaijani side . . . I was told that I would be deported. But they did not put me on the flight back that night or the morning after.

So, I spent the night in the airport. I did not sleep a wink and was quite exhausted by the morning. Then, I thought that I was going to be arrested. It was only late in the night, 31 hours after my arrival, that I was eventually put on a flight back to Tbilisi . . .

EN: The news was that you were arrested . . .

Gogia: I was effectively detained, as they would not let me in or out for two days and one night. I am still much luckier that my Azerbaijani friends like Leyla [Yunus], Arif [Yunus], Intigam [Aliyev], Rasul [Jafarov] and Khadija [Ismayilova]. [Rights-activist Leyla Yunus, her husband, conflict-analyst Arif Yunus, and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova are among a number of other imprisoned government-critics -- ed].

I am not sure how the news got out. In hindsight, what they did made no sense. Had they simply let me in, I would have written another report, which would have had its limited audience. The New York Times would not be reporting about it. But suddenly I was everywhere in the news and tweets kept going out, and they got much more damage to their reputation. . .

EN: Will you try to get into Azerbaijan again?

Gogia: I hope that I will be allowed into Azerbaijan. I am hoping, and I am working on it, that the Georgian embassy will pass a note [diplomatique] to the Azerbaijani side, and that a solution will be found.

EN: You’ve long followed Azerbaijan. What is the human rights situation in Azerbaijan?

Gogia: Azerbaijan was never an easy place to work. But it was relatively recently that things started getting really bad. I long monitored the situation in Azerbaijan and for the past two years I watched how the country has been closing up.

First, they began preventing transfers of foreign grants for human right projects. The local chiefs of party for international democracy watchdogs like ISFED [International Society for Human Rights and Democracy] were arrested. They shut down major international groups like World Vision, the Soros Foundation, IREX.** Then, they went after lawyers, journalists, activists . . .

EN: Why do you think this is happening?

Gogia: I think it is a combination of factors. First, there was the Arab Spring and the authorities became wary of youth activists and began arresting them in droves, like the NIDA [youth] activists. Then, there was [in 2012] Eurovision, which was largely a vanity-project for the government, but human-rights organizations seized the opportunity to put rights-violations in the spotlight then and Azerbaijan got so much bad press that they began another civil society and media clampdown. Later, came Euromaidan [in Ukraine], prompting more fears among the élites that such upheavals can spill over.

Now, they are preparing for the “Olympics" [this June]; the European Games that Azerbaijan pretty much invented. It is designed as another success story for the government and they don’t want to take any chances about getting bad press and are silencing everyone that they can silence. I don’t expect it to get any better after the Games, as then there will be parliamentary and, later on, presidential elections.

EN: The response from the international community to the situation in Azerbaijan is often considered to be too soft . . .

Gogia: The thing is that Azerbaijan’s geopolitical importance has been increasing in the light of the Ukrainian-Russian war. The West could use a strategic partner in the region and Azerbaijan’s energy resources, too. So, Azerbaijan speaks to Europe from this vantage point.

The European Union stops short of taking it to task, even if it runs counter to the EU’s own commitments to working on promoting human rights internationally. Previously, the EU sought a Strategic Partnership for Modernization agreement with Azerbaijan. Then, Baku made it clear that it not that interested in closer ties with the EU; at least, not to a degree to take up a commitment to modernize and change the way things are done. Since then, the EU has switched to discussing a less ambitious Strategic Partnership Agreement.

With only mild criticism coming from the EU, the Azerbaijani authorities are proceeding with impunity . . . Not only was Baku not taken to task for this, but went on to become the chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the world’s main human-rights organizations.

When [President] Ilham Aliyev spoke to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last June, he was defiant and responded sharply to criticism. Then I wrote in a report that “if President Aliyev is this belligerent when addressing such a high tribune and assembly members, we should all be really worried what future holds for his critics at home.”

Unfortunately, those words proved prophetic. And until Azerbaijan’s authorities see that there is a price for what they are doing, it will only get worse.

*Human Rights Watch receives funding from the Open Society Foundations. is run under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City's Eurasia Program.

**The Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan was established as part of the  network of Open Society Foundations. is run under the separate auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City.