TBILISI, DFWatch–Georgia’s Public Defender says the eleven Chechen fighters who died in a shooting incident at the border between Georgia and Russia in August 2012, were part of an operation by the then Georgian government to train and equip fighters and send them into Chechnya.
According to the ombudsmans’ annual report, the plan at the time was to bring in fifty fighters a month from European countries; not only ethnic Chechens but also other North Caucasians, set them up with apartments in Tbilisi and give them driver’s licenses and guns. They would then be trained at Vaziani and Shavnabada military bases outside of Tbilisi, both by Georgian military trainers and by experienced Chechen fighters as instructors.
By summer last year, up to 120 fighters had been brought in from Europe, according to the report, which is based on interviews with relatives of those who died in the operation as well as secret sources. The ombudsman also writes that there exists a gun license of one of the dead fighters further reinforcing the story.
This contradicts the official version of the then government, and the ombudsman therefore requests that there is created a commission at parliament to study this issue.
The National Movement party of President Mikheil Saakashvili, which was in government at the time, accuse Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili of furthering the interests of Russia, but speaking with DF Watch, the ombudsman denies this.
“We do not claim that our country is somewhat terrorist country or has a relation with terrorism,” he says, and adds:
“There is certain information that certain officials actively cooperated and were actively involved in this process, and this should be separated.”
When Nanuashvili became Public Defender last December, the position had been vacant for several months. His predecessor was Sozar Subari, who became prison minister after Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government came to power in October, 2012. Before assuming the post, Nanuashvili was chair of a well-known non-governmental organization, the Human Rights Center.
Three Georgian special unit employees and eleven members of an armed group of fighters died in the border operation in August, 2012, which took place in Lopota Gorge on the border between Georgia and the Russian republic of Dagestan. August 29 Interior Ministry stated that they were conducting an ‘antiterrorist operation’ against armed units close to the village of Lapankuri.
The same day, the ministry stated that eleven armed unit members and three Georgia’s special service representatives, including a military doctor, died during the shooting, which was preceded by a hostage taking incident. Despite their denial, September 2 the ministry finally confirmed that two among eleven dead were citizens of Georgia from the Pankisi Gorge, and five were citizens of Russia.
The government never said directly that those people came from North Caucasus, but official statements, including statement of the president, said that the government was reviewing the option that the armed group came from North Caucasus, from Dagestan. In the beginning of April, the Ombudsman said that there is a suspicion that Saakashvili’s government was training Chechen fighters in Georgia.
Vano Merabishvili, former Prime Minister and new Secretary General of the UNM, responded that the ombudsman’s accusation is ‘idiotic’ and serves to portray Georgia as a terrorist country, which is a part of Russian propaganda.
However, the Public Defender says that this operation needs to be investigated, because during examination of this issue the ombudsman’s office revealed circumstances which contradict the official version reported by the previous government. Those circumstances indicate the possibility that an armed unit was created, armed and trained by the Interior Ministry at the time.
“We spoke with the family members of the dead. There are many contradictions in this case,” the ombudsman noted, adding that the Ministry of Interior issued licenses to carry a weapon and also driver licenses to the Chechen fighters.
“The Interior Ministry should react to those facts.”
He said that ethnic Chechens received Georgian passports at the embassies of Georgia in different countries.
The ombudsman thinks that there is a variety of opinions regarding the Lapankuri operation and the investigation should answer many questions.
“We cannot avoid those events, because it is about depriving the right of life,” Nanuashvili noted.
He doesn’t specify how he got a weapon’s carrying license which belonged to Aslan Margoshvili, who died during the operation.
“This is confidential information and I never took this license from investigative material. We cooperate with appropriate bodies in order to investigate the case.”
The ombudsman thinks that there should be a commission in parliament to investigate the case that should also include civil society representatives, members of every political party and also representatives of the Chechen community in Pankisi Gorge, who have information and are ready to cooperate.
Nanuashvili told DF Watch that the question is if it was possible to avoid what happened, whether police exceeded powers, and how actions were planned and coordinated.
“Our material reveals that it was really possible to avoid. Even more, the situation developed in a completely different direction and this is a serious violation, what we are talking about. 14 persons died and none of their family members are familiar with any type of forensic examination,’ he says.
The Ministry of Interior has so far not commented on this issue. The minister has several times stated that the ministry will wait until the investigation is finished.
A few days ago, the Prime Minister said that he doesn’t exclude that the ombudsman’s information is true. Later he also said that ‘if any official dared to cooperate with terrorists, they will be [held] responsible, but not the whole country.’
“Punishing certain high officials for cooperation with terrorists will not violate the image of the country,” Ivanishvili later remarked.