Public Defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, has called on the Parliament to set up an ad hoc investigative commission to look into armed clash in Lopota gorge in late August, 2012 and events leading up to that incident in which eleven militants and three Georgian troops were killed.
The Public Defender says that his own probe revealed circumstances, which contradict official version of events, which at the time was provided by the previous government.
The Public Defender said that the probe by his office found evidence suggesting that the armed group, involved in the clash, was formed, armed and trained by then leadership of the Georgian Interior Ministry, which recruited members of the group mainly from Chechen exiles by promising them to give free passage to Russia’s North Caucasus via Georgia.
On August 29, 2012 the Georgian Interior Ministry announced that it was carrying out “anti-terrorist operation against armed group” close to Lapankuri village in the Lopota gorge, not far from the Dagestan section of the Georgian-Russian border. Later on the same day it announced that eleven gunmen and three Georgian special service personnel, including a military doctor, were killed in a clash which was preceded by hostage-taking incident.
Although at the time Georgian authorities never stated directly that the gunmen came from the North Caucasus, their public statements, including those of President Saakashvili, were suggesting in favor of this version of infiltration of gunmen from the North Caucasus, particularly from Dagestan. After initial denials, the Interior Ministry confirmed on September 2 that among the gunmen killed in the clash two were Georgian citizens, natives of Pankisi gorge, an area in north eastern Georgia populated by Kists, ethnic Chechens of Georgian citizenship.
UNM secretary general, Vano Merabishvili, who at the time of Lopota gorge incident was PM and served as interior minister till early July 2012, said Public Defender’s allegation about the previous government providing assistance to the militants was “idiotic” and aimed at portraying Georgia as a terrorist state, which was in line with Russia’s propaganda.
“[Nikolai] Patrushev [secretary of Russia’s security council] was voicing allegation of this kind,” Merabishvili said on April 1. “These are very idiotic, harmful, anti-state allegations and I feel pity for those people, who voice direct orders of Russian special services.”
Results of the Public Defender’s probe into the Lopota gorge incident are provided as a separate chapter in a voluminous annual report on human rights situation in the country, which was presented by Nanuashvili on April 1.
According to the Public Defender, his findings were based on information gathered from “confidential sources” and relatives of some of those men, who were killed in the armed clash.
According to the report, in February 2012 senior officials from the Georgian Interior Ministry contacted some of “veterans of the Chechen war”, as well as representatives of Chechen community now living in Europe with the purpose to convince them that the Georgian authorities were ready to give armed militants “so called corridor”, a free passage for infiltrating into Russia’s North Caucasus via Georgia.
These efforts, according to the report, resulted into arrival from Europe of about 120 Chechens and other natives of the North Caucasus in Georgia.
“Flats were rented for them in various neighborhoods of Tbilisi, mainly in Saburtalo district,” the report reads, adding that the Interior Ministry officials were picking them up at Tbilisi airport and providing them with firearms and driving licenses.
It says that the Public Defender’s Office possesses gun registration certificate issued on July 23, 2012 by the Interior Ministry to Aslan Margoshvili, one of those gunmen killed in the Lopota clash.
The report says that “militants were undergoing training outside Tbilisi at Vaziani and Shavnabada bases… Employees of the Georgian power-wielding structures, as well as Chechen militants with large combat experience where serving as instructors of these groups” during the trainings.
Citing “a confidential source”, the report says that then deputy interior minister Gia Lortkipanidze was in charge of handling these groups.
Lortkipanidze told Rustavi 2 television station via phone on April 1 that the allegation was “absurd” and “slander”.
The report claims that militants’ training and their presence in Georgia lasted longer than it was scheduled, which triggered militants’ disappointment, demanding from their Georgian handlers to organize their infiltration to the North Caucasus without further delay.
“2012 parliamentary elections were approaching; internal political situation was getting tense in Georgia, triggering assumptions among Chechen militants that reason behind keeping them in Georgia longer than scheduled was possibly related to elections and possibility of being used in some form in the electoral process,” the report reads.
The report says that group of militants was deployed in the Lopota gorge “several days” before the armed clash occurred. “According to a confidential source they entered there with pickup vehicles provided by the Interior Ministry’s anti-terrorism center,” it says.
Two days before the clash, the report says citing unnamed sources, the units of the Georgian special task force were flown by helicopters at the Dagestan section of the Georgian-Russian border, presumably to prevent the militants from infiltrating into Russia’s North Caucasus.
The report says that the militants, deployed in the Lopota gorge, were demanding from their Georgian handlers to give them passage to Russia as promised.
“But the Georgian Interior Ministry refused to give them ‘corridor’ and demanded from the militants to surrender their arms and to return either to Pankisi gorge or to a military base. This demand strained relations between the Chechen militants and Georgian Interior Ministry employees. For the purpose of defusing tensions and holding negotiations with the militants, the Interior Ministry employees turned to mediators – authoritative Chechen individuals,” the report reads, adding that the talks yielded no result and militants refused to surrender their arms in the Lopota gorge, instead offering to turn in their arms only after returning to the Pankisi gorge.
The report says that after the refusal, the Georgian troops’ launch special operation in which seven militants (the report puts this figure as number of casualties among gunmen, not eleven) and three Georgian troops were killed.
“According to information provided by a confidential source, the Georgian servicemen, who died in the Lapankuri special operation, were accompanying the group of Chechen militants from the very first day of their deployment there,” the report says.
It says that according to a father of Aslan Margoshvili, one of the militant killed in the clash who was native of Pankisi gorge, his son was trained at the Shavnabada base and among his instructors were Archil Chokheli and Solomon Tsiklauri – two Georgian special forces personal killed in the Lopota gorge.
According to the report nine militants survived in the clash. It says that several days after the clash, survivors left Georgia with the help of the Georgian Interior Ministry representatives and went to Turkey through Vale border crossing point.
The Public Defender calls on the chief prosecutor’s office to launch investigation into connection of alleged involvement of former senior Interior Ministry officials in setting up illegal armed groups in 2012. The Public Defender also called prosecutors’ to investigate cases of intimidation of those relatives of killed militants, who live in the Pankisi gorge. The report says that bodies of killed militants were handed over to their relatives several days later on the condition to bury them without traditional funeral service, quietly and without presence of people.
In a separate chapter of the annual human rights report, which addresses right to life, the Public Defender says that no investigation has been carried out, either by the previous or by the current authorities, into possible use of excessive force by the Georgian law enforcement agencies during the special operation in Lopota gorge. It says that as circumstances of the incident have not yet been established, “we believe that state’s positive obligation to protect life could have been violated in respect of those who died” in the clash.
On September 8, 2012 the Interior Ministry announced that it detained citizen of the Russia Federation from North Caucasus, Akhmed Chatayev, whom it described as one of the gunmen involved in the Lopota clash. Chatayev, who was wounded in the leg and his leg was subsequently amputated, was charged by the Georgian authorities with illegal possession of explosives.
After the new government came into power, Chatayev was released on bail in December, 2012 and in January, 2013 charges were dropped from him and he subsequently got acquittal from the court. Chatayev, who was granted refugee status in Austria in 2003, told journalists at the time that he became involved in the Lopota developments after he was invited by the Georgian authorities as a mediator to negotiate with the Chechen militants to surrender their arms; Chatayev said that after meeting with militants he returned back to the positions held by the Georgian troops to convey militants’ message but was shot in the leg.
A lawyer from the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Center, a group which was led by Ucha Nanuashvili before becoming Public Defender in December, was providing legal counsel to Chatayev.