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Georgian Court Releases Jailed Warlord

Emzar Kvitsiani in a February 2014 photograph

Emzar Kvitsiani in a February 2014 photograph

The Kutaisi Appeals Court has approved the release, on the basis of a plea bargain proposed by the prosecution, of Emzar Kvitsiani, the Svan military leader sentenced two months ago to 16 years' imprisonment for heading a mutiny in summer 2006 in Georgia's Kodori Gorge.

Under that agreement, Kvitsiani's jail term was reduced to 11 months, which is the time he has spent in custody since being arrested on his return to Georgia from Moscow in February 2014. The charges against him have not, however, been dropped.

Georgian human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili expressed approval of the deal that facilitated Kvitsiani's release, noting that there had been unspecified "violations" in the course of the trial.

(After sentence was pronounced in November, Kvitsiani's lawyer was quoted by Caucasus Knot as saying that the prosecutor had promised Kvitsiani he would be released if he pled guilty, and then pressured the judge to hand down the maximum sentence when Kvitsiani refused to do so. That prosecutor has since been dismissed.)

Kvitsiani, 53, is a controversial and larger-than-life figure whom then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze named in the late 1990s as his representative in the Kodori Gorge, the lower reaches of which are in Georgia proper and the upper reaches in the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. According to Caucasus Knot, Kvitsiani was involved in the abortive operation in the fall of 2001 in which the Georgian authorities co-opted Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev with the aim of bringing Abkhazia back under Georgian control.

Kvitsiani pledged his support for Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution of November 2003 that precipitated Shevardnadze's ouster. One year later, Shevardnadze's successor as president, Mikheil Saakashvili, dismissed Kvitsiani as Kodori governor. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili ordered the disbanding of Kvitsiani's Monadire armed force in April 2005, but its members refused to surrender their arms.

Things came to a head in July 2006, when Kvitsiani protested the reappointment to the new cabinet of Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, warning that he would "start a civil war" if Merabishvili retained his post.

Saakashvili sent the two ministers to quash the insurrection. But the operation was evaluated by U.S. military advisers to Georgia as less than stellar, and it apparently succeeded primarily because Kvitsiani offered no resistance, and fled, to either Abkhazia or Russia.

Several months later, Abkhaz television broadcast a statement in which Kvitsiani claimed responsibility for the artillery bombardment of Kodori on October 25 while Merabishvili was touring the region. Kvitsiani also sent a missive to the independent Georgian TV station Mze (Sun) branding the Saakashvili leadership "fascist" and vowing "revenge on the authorities for insulting the people of Georgia." But he failed to deliver on that threat.

At his first court appearance, in April 2014, Kvitsiani declared that his objective in returning to Georgia was "to clarify the truth." But following his release on January 28, he told journalists he agreed to the plea bargain "because I would not have proven my truth in today's court."

Reactions to Kvitsiani's release have been mixed. Parliamentarians from the majority Georgian Dream faction, 35 of whom signed a petition last year calling for Kvitsiani's release on bail, have reportedly expressed approval. Faction leader Davit Saghanelidze was quoted as commenting on January 26, when the news of Kvitsiani's imminent release first became public, that the guilty verdict handed down to him was "biased." "He may have committed some mistakes, excesses, but I have no doubt that he loves his country," Saghanelidze said.

Lawmakers from Saakashvili's former ruling United National Movement (EEM), by contrast, construed Kvitsiani's release as having been condoned by Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili with the explicit objective of "using [Kvitsiani] to pressure [their] political opponents," in the words of faction head Mikheil Machavariani.

Machavariani did not explain why, if the current leadership considered Kvitsiani a useful weapon against the EEM, it should have put him on trial and sentenced him in the first place.

Kvitsiani is reported to have formally requested a pardon from Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. He has also demanded the return of property his lawyer says was "illegally" expropriated in 2006-07.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.