Several hundred supporters of Emzar Kvitsiani, who was sentenced to 12 years in jail earlier this week for defying Georgia's leaders in the summer of 2006, staged a protest in Tbilisi on November 20 to demand his unconditional release by December 1 and the creation of a parliament commission to review the charges against him.
The demonstrators warned of renewed protests if those demands are not met. They also adopted a separate appeal to Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili to pardon Kvitsiani.
Commenting on the verdict, Kvitsiani's sister Nora, who was tried and sentenced in 2007 on charges of forming an illegal armed group and the theft of humanitarian aid, argued that he acted in 2006 as "a Georgian patriot who fought for his country." She maintained that Kvitsiani has become "the current Georgian leadership's first political prisoner."
Kvitsiani, 53, is a member of Georgia's Svan sub-ethnos whose traditional homeland is a remote mountain district in the northwest of the country. Little is known for certain about his career prior to the 1990s; unsubstantiated reports in the Russian press claim he acquired a criminal record.
During the 1992-1993 war that culminated in Tbilisi's loss of control over the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Kvitsiani formed the Monadire (Hunter) battalion of several hundred fighters financed by the Georgian Defense Ministry, which maintained control over the Georgian section of the Kodori gorge that straddles Georgia proper and Abkhazia. It is a measure of Kvitsiani's competence as a military commander that when he was arrested on his return to Tbilisi from Moscow in late February 2014, no fewer than 30 generals, including two former defense ministers, offered to stand bail for him.
In 1997, then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze named Kvitsiani his personal plenipotentiary in the region. Following Shevardnadze's ouster in the Rose Revolution of November 2003, Kvitsiani was dismissed as presidential representative at the urging of Irakli Alasania, then head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile. In May 2005, then Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili ordered Monadire disbanded, and subsequently accused its members of engaging in unspecified criminal activity.
Kvitsiani not only refused to comply with the order to disband his unit, in late July 2006, he formally declared civil disobedience and threatened to begin a civil war unless Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was dismissed from that post. Merabishvili was believed to be implicated in the murders earlier in 2006 of several Svans, including banker Sandro Girgvliani. (Merabishvili was sentenced last month to three years' imprisonment for his role in concealing the circumstances of Girgvliani's killing by Interior Ministry personnel.)
Vanished From View
Merabishvili and Okruashvili responded by deploying to Kodori army and Interior Ministry troops backed by combat helicopters, but failed to apprehend Kvitsiani despite offering a 100,000 lari reward ($56,000) for his capture. In late October 2006, Kvitsiani claimed it was his men who opened fire on Merabishvili's motorcade in Kodori several days earlier. Kvitsiani also sent a missive to the independent Georgian TV station Mze (Sun) branding the leadership of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "fascist" and vowing "revenge on the authorities for insulting the people of Georgia." But he failed to deliver on that threat.
After that episode, Kvitsiani vanished from view and, at some point, settled in Moscow, where he lived for several years. In February 2014, he returned to Tbilisi for reasons that remain unclear: either because the Russian authorities refused to prolong his residency, or because he wanted to go public with details of the events of 2006. He was arrested on his arrival and remanded in pre-trial custody, which was extended in April despite an appeal by 32 members of the majority Georgian Dream parliament faction to release him. That level of support suggests that many Georgians believe Kvitsiani was justified in challenging the Saakashili regime.
A court in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi found Kvitsiani guilty on November 17 of mutiny and of forming an illegal armed group -- charges to which he had pleaded not guilty. Seven other charges had been dropped in June.
Kvitsiani's lawyer Emzar Kakhniauri was quoted by Caucasus Knot as saying that the prosecutor had promised Kvitsiani he would be released if he pled guilty, and pressured the judge to hand down the maximum sentence when Kvitsiani refused to do so.
Georgia's human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili expressed reservations about the conduct of the trial. Parliamentarian Soso Djachvliani, who participated in the November 20 Tbilisi protest, questioned why Kvitsiani had received a far more severe sentence than either Merabishvili or former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaya, who was jailed for 7 ½ years last month on charges of torture and abuse of his official position.
-- Liz Fuller