TBILISI -- Prominent Georgian doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili has been released from prison in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, ending the high-profile case but leaving in place a months-old border cutoff that international groups say is endangering lives.
Gaprindashvili, president of Georgia's association of orthopedists and traumatologists, was released on December 28 after reportedly being “pardoned” by the de facto president of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov.
Speaking shortly after his release in the town of Gori, Gaprindashvili said he was “full of emotions” and thanked those who had rallied for his release.
“I‘d like to thank those who were worried for me,” he said.
Gaprindashvili was sentenced by breakaway authorities to one year and nine months in prison on December 20 for allegedly crossing the region’s border illegally. He had insisted that he had not broken any laws as South Ossetia is Georgian territory.
Tensions at the de facto divide between the Georgian and Russian-backed sides flared in late August amid signs of a military buildup after South Ossetia's breakaway authorities complained about Tbilisi's erection of a new wooden observation post near the village of Tsnelisi.
The United States, the European Union, and Russia urged all sides to exercise restraint.
The "complete ban on movement" between the two sides was imposed by the de facto authorities in South Ossetia in early September.
Amnesty International warned in November that the breakaway authorities' "complete ban" was "further worsening the humanitarian situation by denying residents of the breakaway region access to medical care, social security benefits, education, and family visits."
Gaprindashvili was said to be traveling to the region in an attempt to reach a patient who needed medical treatment when he was detained by Russia-backed separatists on November 9.
Georgian villagers living near the loosely guarded rural boundary are often detained on similar grounds. But the detention of Gaprindashvili, a high-profile local figure, had drawn more attention, with hundreds of citizens, including relatives, colleagues, politicians and civic activists, calling for his release.
The Georgian government, the United States, and Amnesty had also urged Gaprindashvili's immediate release and a reopening of all crossing points along the South Ossetia boundary.
The U.S. Embassy on December 28 welcomed Gaprindashvili's release but repeated its call for the de facto authorities to reopen crossing points.
"We again call on the de facto authorities to open crossing points along the administrative boundary line and to allow freedom of movement for the local population and humanitarian access," the embassy said in a statement.
It also repeated the United States' "unwavering commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The European Union's ambassador to Tbilisi, Carl Hartzell, tweeted that he "very much welcome[s]" the Georgian physician's release "back to his family in time for the New Year," adding, "[But] let me at the same time recall the importance of taking immediate steps to reopen the crossing points.