Prague, 25 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A Tbilisi court yesterday handed down four-year prison sentences to four Chechens alleged to be separatist fighters. The decision has sparked concern among Georgian rights campaigners and refugees from the war-torn North Caucasus region.
The four -- identified as Aslanbek Khanchukaev, Akhmed Magomedov, Khamzat Isaev, and Khalid Aliev -- were convicted of initiating a brawl with Tbilisi prison guards in 2002. A fifth man -- identified as Giorgi Kushtanashvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge -- was also handed a four-year jail sentence under similar charges.
Nana Kakabadze chairs a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization known as Political Prisoners for Human rights. She told RFE/RL the accusations brought against the defendants were unfounded. "Obviously this sentence is unfair," she said. "I can assure you that these men never fought any prison warden. These accusations were made [then] only as a pretext to keep them in custody."
The five men sentenced yesterday were among a group of 13 alleged separatist fighters who were arrested in August 2002 while entering Georgia from neighboring Chechnya. Five were soon extradited to Russia. On 18 February, a Russian court sentenced four of them to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years.
Georgian authorities charged the remaining eight with illegally entering the country with their weapons, claiming to be civilian refugees. But the charges were eventually dropped after Georgia's Supreme Court found they had identified themselves to Georgian border guards and had entered the country with peaceful intent.
Georgian-based Chechen refugees fear Tbilisi may be reluctant to release the four Chechens while it is trying to obtain a pledge from Moscow to lift its visa requirement imposed on Georgian citizens three years ago at the peak of the Pankisi dispute.
Three months ago, a Georgian court ruled that three of the eight detainees be released from custody. But after their release, two of them vanished under mysterious circumstances. Human rights activists say they were secretly transported to the Russian border -- a claim Georgian authorities deny.
A Tbilisi-based Chechen refugee -- who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity -- said the pair has now been located, and are effectively being held hostage in a Russian prison. He said the situation is similar to his own several years ago, when he was held in Russian custody until his relatives paid $5,000 as a ransom for his release -- a common practice since the start of the second Chechen war.
"[They] are now in Yessentuki [in Russia's Stavropol Krai]. Although this is a small town, there is a prison there. We'll see how soon the Russians will ask for money for their liberation. On 16 February, they were taken from the minibus that was taking them to the [Georgian] Refugees Ministry to get their refugee papers and brought to the headquarters of the [Georgian State Security Ministry]. Then, on [19 February], they were handed over [to the Russian authorities] at the Upper Lars border checkpoint. Their relatives say they may be released soon," the Chechen refugee said.
Prior to Mikheil Saakashvili's election as Georgia's new head of state last January, Moscow had long been accusing President Eduard Shevardnadze of allowing Chechen fighters to use the Pankisi Gorge as a training field and a rear base of operations for attacks against Russian troops.
Pankisi is home to some 7,000 ethnic Chechen Georgians known as Kists. It also hosts several hundreds Chechen refugees, the vast majority of whom were granted tentative legal status by the Shevardnadze administration.
Eager to improve ties with Moscow, Saakashvili has promised Russian President Vladimir Putin to help in the fight against Chechen separatists. During a visit to Moscow in February, Saakashvili offered to join forces in enhancing security along the Russian-Georgian border in order to make it impenetrable to Chechen fighters. The heads of the Russian and Georgian border-guard administrations signed a formal cooperation agreement to that effect on 22 April in Tbilisi.
Rights campaigner Kakabadze said Saakashvili's pledge to foster ties with Russia bodes ill for the future of Georgian-based Chechens. She fears the four non-Georgian Chechens who were sentenced yesterday may eventually meet a fate similar to that of their fellow countrymen who were extradited to Russia in February.
"In light of the swift reactions sparked by [the recent extraditions] -- we gave a series of press briefings to protest this decision -- I suspect our government has probably decided to keep these Chechens in custody [for the time being]. I believe this was done purposely to hand them over to the Russian authorities through the channel of the penitentiary administration," Kakabadze said.
No Georgian officials were immediately available for comment.
Georgia's Novosti-Gruziya news agency yesterday quoted Achiko Chopikashvili, a lawyer for the Chechen detainees, as saying he would appeal the sentence within the next two weeks. But Georgian-based Chechen refugees have little hope the move will bear fruit. They fear Tbilisi may be reluctant to release the four Chechens while it is trying to obtain a pledge from Moscow to lift its visa requirement imposed on Georgian citizens three years ago at the peak of the Pankisi dispute.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, currently on a visit to Moscow, today told the Tbilisi-based Mze private TV station that travel restrictions were on the agenda of his talks with Russian officials and that both sides have agreed to raise this issue again next month.