Referring to the annual study of the human rights situation in Georgia presented to parliament on April 1 by Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili, Ivanishvili said in that interview the ongoing probe into the circumstances of a shootout in August in eastern Georgia between Chechens and Georgian troops and Interior Ministry special forces may yield “shocking” results that corroborate Nanuashvili’s conclusion that the previous government recruited, trained and equipped Chechens living in exile in Europe to join the North Caucasus insurgency.
At the time of the August shootout, in which three Georgians and up to 11 militants were killed, the Georgian authorities said they had intercepted and neutralized a suspicious group of armed men near Georgia’s border with Daghestan. But Nanuashvili’s report to parliament presented a radically different version of what happened.
According to Nanuashvili’s sources, the Georgian Interior Ministry recruited and flew to Tbilisi from Europe up to 120 refugees from the North Caucasus, primarily Chechens, to undergo training prior to crossing the border into Russia and joining the insurgency. The men were housed in apartments in Tbilisi, trained at the Shavnabada and Vaziani military bases, and issued with licenses for their weapons.
That scenario continues like this:
In late August, the men grew impatient and demanded to be taken to eastern Georgia to cross into Daghestan. Their handlers duly deployed them to the Lopota gorge in eastern Georgia. But Interior Ministry special forces transported there separately by helicopter intercepted the Chechens and prevented them from crossing into Russia. The Georgian troops demanded that the men surrender their weapons and return either to a military base or to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, the largely Kist population of which are ethnic Chechens who have lived there for centuries.
Whether that move was because the Georgian leadership developed cold feet over abetting the North Caucasus insurgency, or whether it was intended from the outset to set the men up and then kill them and brand them infiltrators from Russia (which was the official explanation given in August) remains unclear.
The Chechen recruits reportedly refused to comply with the demand to disarm, whereupon the Georgian side sent for respected and authoritative members of the Georgian Chechen community to reason with them. The Chechens, however, said they would surrender their weapons only after they reached Pankisi. That refusal triggered a shootout in which two Georgian handlers and a military doctor were killed, along with seven Chechens. (The initial reports gave the number of Chechens killed as 11.)
The Georgian Interior Ministry subsequently arranged for the remaining recruits to leave Georgia for Turkey.
That account of events was partially substantiated by Akhmad Chatayev, a Chechen who lost an arm fighting in the early 2000s and was subsequently granted political asylum in Austria before settling in Georgia. Chatayev was one of the Chechens brought to mediate in the standoff between the Chechens and Georgians and was injured in the gun battle between the Chechen recruits and the Georgian special forces. He was apprehended 10 days later and went on trial in November on a charge of illegal possession of two hand grenades, which he denied.
The criminal case brought against Chatayev was shelved in January after the prosecutor’s office withdrew the charge against him.
Nanuashvili’s report names then-Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze as having coordinated the recruitment and training of the Chechens. In October, however, a prominent member of the Chechen community in Georgia, Umar Idigov, said it was former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaya who conceived the idea of co-opting Chechens and infiltrating them into Russia.
But in a statement posted two weeks ago on his Facebook page, Akhalaya’s brother Dato, himself a former Interior Ministry official, claimed to be in possession of evidence that it was their former boss Vano Merabishvili who masterminded the planned operation. Both Merabishvili and Lortkipanidze have rejected allegations of their involvement as “idiotic” and “absurd.”
Widely regarded as Saakashivili’s eminence grise, Merabishvili was accused by one of Nanuashvili’s predecessors as human rights defender of condoning the formation within the Interior Ministry of "a punitive group that stands above the law and that can liquidate any given individual if doing so is considered expedient." In the wake of the defeat of Saakashvili’s United National Movement by Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in the October 1 parliamentary elections, Saakashvili named Merabishvili to head the party in the hope he would be able to reverse the catastrophic decline in its fortunes prior to the presidential election due in October 2013.
Nanuashvili called for establishing a parliament commission to probe the events culminating in the Lopota shootout, including the putative involvement of Merabishvili, but the parliament declined that proposal on the grounds that existing legislation precludes setting up such a commission in cases where an investigation by prosecutor’s office is under way. That investigation was launched in November. No details of its findings have yet been made public. Ivanishvili told Rustavi-2 that it will be completed “in the near future.”
It was reported earlier last week that the bodies of two of the Chechens killed in Lopota are to be exhumed to determine precisely how they died. The results of the original postmortems have disappeared.
Meanwhile, the Russian daily “Izvestia” published three articles last week alleging links between Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who with his younger brother Dzhokhar is believed to have perpetrated the Boston marathon bombings on April 15, and Georgia’s Caucasus Fund, which was established in Georgia in the aftermath of the August 2008 war with Russia to promote academic contacts with the North Caucasus. Citing a report compiled by a Georgian Interior Ministry Counterintelligence Department staffer it named as Colonel Grigory Chanturia, the paper claimed that Tsarnaev attended several seminars the Caucasus Fund organized last year.
The Georgian Interior Ministry swiftly denied any connection with Tsarnaev, adding that it has no information he ever visited Georgia. The ministry also denied ever having employed an officer by the name of Grigory Chanturia.
The Caucasus Fund issued a statement similarly denying any connection with Tsarnaev and stressing that its primary objective is to foster scientific, cultural and humanitarian ties between Georgia and the North Caucasus republics. It branded the “Izvestia” article an attempt by “those forces that disapprove of the fund’s activities” to blacken Georgia in the eyes of the international community, and said it will bring a libel case against the paper.
Georgian Caucasus expert Mamuka Areshidze for his part noted the existence within the Georgian security agencies of a “fifth column” that, he suggested, could have passed confidential information to Moscow. Areshidze also suggested that Tsarnayev may have been co-opted in a “false flag” recruitment by the previous Georgian government by someone claiming to work for the Caucasus Fund, but with the aim of discrediting both the Fund and Georgia.