On March 31, Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch was barred from entering Azerbaijan. Giorgi Gogia came to Azerbaijan to attend the trial of two prominent rights defenders Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov. Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Giorgi Gogia about the 31 hours he spent at the Haydar Aliyev International Airport.
Azadliq Radiosu: How are you feeling?
Giorgi Gogia: Still trying to recover. It’s been an exhausting 30 something hours. But I am fine.
It was a frustrating experience. In the end it all ended fine although it is very sad that I could not be with Intigam and Rasul where I wanted to be. Clearly I could not do much but being there just of moral support to them.
Are you banned from traveling to Azerbaijan now?
The whole problem is they never told me anything. For the 30 plus hours they had my passport no one ever explained to me what was going on. The guy who was there with me spoke no Russian or English. He was an elderly man who just spoke nothing to me. When I asked others questions, they said they were still investigating or studying.
And when I asked [understanding that they weren’t letting me in] what were the reasons because there were no legal grounds [for them to keep me] – I don’t need visa, I never violated any rules or laws, I have never overstayed, and I never traveled to Nagorno Karabakh via Armenia – I have never done anything that would give them any legal ground. So it became obvious to me that political decision was made.
In the end when they put me on the plane, like a criminal - I had these clear flashbacks from times I have seen people deported – two security officials accompanied me, they didn’t trust me with my passport, they put me in the back of the plane although it was a completely empty flight. [They] Made sure I was sitting there and then they gave my passport to flight attendants instead of giving it to me who then gave it to the Georgian border guards who then gave it to me through the border control. It was really a humiliating experience.
The paper that they didn’t give me but passed on to the Georgian border guards said “I was denied entry into the country”. It didn’t say that I was banned but just that I was denied an entry without any explanation.
30 hours! For the first two three hours I waited in passport control area. It was such a surreal experience because the guy actually stamped my passport but then something flashed on his computer screen. He got really upset and then he called somebody and then five people showed up and I was told to stand aside wait and wait without any explanation.
Somebody else came took me through security control through transit hall and told me to sit in that particular chair which did and then an hour later someone came again and took me down and then again through security control (I went through security control three times and each time very thoroughly they searched me) and then back to the transit area.
Then they started asking me questions:
- Who I was?
- Who I worked for?
- Have I been to Azerbaijan before? (my passport had a dozen stamps and they had it so obviously I have been to Azerbaijan and its not like I was hiding it)
I didn’t hide that I was coming here for the trial– it was a public trial – to attend and observe. They asked whose trial it was. To which I said it was Intigam Aliyev's and Rasul Jafarov's. They asked whether I knew Intigam personally to which I said yes, I did and that the entire world knew him.
Then they wrote down the name and the name of my organization, and took my business card. And still no explanation what exactly they were looking for. That’s why I am saying it was a political decision they have made.
It was also a miscalculation from their part because it would have been much less media attention if I went there and attended the trial. I could have gone to the trial and talked about the trial but now it has much bigger repercussions.
Human Rights Watch been working in Azerbaijan for over 25 years. I have been working on Azerbaijan for 12 years and never in this time we were denied access to the country.
So this is really unprecedented but so is the crackdown. Not just what they did to me but also the crackdown itself. We have seen in the past year the civil society detained, bank accounts frozen, the systematic efforts to wipe out the civil society of the country. So obviously in this system they do not want witnesses. So to me it was a political decision that they made hoping that they would change it but this doesn’t mean that HRW will stop its work in Azerbaijan.
When did you realize they were not going to let you in?
I always kept hope, until the end pretty much. I arrived at 1.30 pm [on March 30]. There were two flights out of Baku to Tbilisi one in the evening and one in the morning. So when they didn’t put me on the late evening flight I thought maybe someone high up has to make a decision to let me in and that was my hope.
I really wanted to be at that trial for symbolic reasons if not something else. So I was really hoping they would let me in.
I thought they would realize it was not in their interest to bar me from entering the country. And yet I was kept in this transit area, there was nowhere to sleep, thank God there was a cafeteria. I didn’t even make my detention public because I didn’t want to give them a reason. I was hoping they would reconsider the decision but it didn’t happen.
And this whole feeling of being a criminal didn’t leave me. There were people who were watching me, sitting next to me or close to me. They didn’t interact with me but I didn’t have my passport. What was I going to do? It is not like I could fly out or go into the country. That really was unnecessary. But the way I was escorted - it was a standard treatment – they really didn’t have to do that.
The sad thing is that the people who should be out are still in jail - Intigam, Rasul, Khadija - these are great people and they are still in jail. So sad reality remains.
Do you think you will go back during the European Games?
I don’t want to speculate about it at this stage. I will try and see if I could get some explanation for what went wrong. I would love to go back. It is a country I deeply care about and been working on over a decade. But if the price is that I do not do human rights work and I go there as a tourist I am not going to do that. I want to be able to do the work that I do.
In one of its recent dispatches, the Human Rights Watch called for an immediate release of all wrongly detained activists and journalists.