Pankisi Elders Reiterate Calls for Objective Investigation over Security Forces Operation

The Union of Elders of Georgia’s north-eastern Pankisi gorge, populated predominantly by ethnic Kists, a sub-group of the Chechen people, issued a statement yesterday concerning the security forces operation on December 26, saying the incident that left an 18-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili wounded in the head should be investigated “in a timely and objective manner.”

The appeal of the Union of Elders came a week after their initial statement over the security forces operation and four days after the meeting of some of its members with the Governor of Kakheti, Irakli Kadagishvili, and the Deputy Head of the State Security Service, Ioseb Gogashvili, who briefed them on the ongoing investigation into Ahmed Chatayev’s case and the ties of Machalikashvili and four other detained Pankisi residents to the group of terror suspects, who allegedly plotted attacks on diplomatic missions in Georgia and Turkey.

One of the elders, Elizbar Margoshvili, said then that the video footage presented to the elders “convinced” them that “what happened was a reality,” and that the detainees “were indeed cooperating and communicating with Chatayev.” He also said the group planned to carry out a terrorist attack on Russian Embassy premises in Tbilisi.*

Margoshvili spoke on Temirlan Machalikashvili as well, saying “this innocent boy was [unintentionally] drawn into the misdeed by Chatayev and his group.” In his later statements, however, Margoshvili retracted from his initial position and said he obtained “convincing” evidence that Machalikashvili and other detainees had “absolutely no connection” to Chatayev’s case.

The Union of Elders confirmed in their January 2 statement that the State Security Service official presented “part of the evidence” to them, but noted that it was “difficult to assess the content of these materials,” and that it should “become a subject of legal proceedings.” “We recognize the high public interest over the case and call on everyone to refrain from making affirmative statements on the suspects’ culpability,” reads the statement.

The elders also noted that the State Security Service violated the presumption of innocence against Temirlan Machalikashvili when it “stated definitively that Machalikashvili tried to resist to the law enforcement officers and attempted to activate a hand grenade.” “Despite high public interest we have not received a convincing answer on why it was necessary and proportional to shoot Temirlan Machalikashvili directly in his head, leaving him in grave medical condition,” the Union said.

“We call on the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate in a timely and objective manner the case of Temirlan Machalikashvili’s wounding and inform the public [of the results] as soon as possible,” the elders noted, also urging the Prosecutor’s Office “to conduct an unbiased investigation in observance with the principle of the equality of parties” in investigating the cases of the four detained residents of Pankisi.

The Elders also urged the government to “adequately respond to the deep discontent existing in the [local] community and spare no effort through internal and external resources for saving the life of Temirlan Machalikashvili (Machalikashvili remains unconscious and has been placed on mechanical ventilation).”

The Georgian security forces conducted a large-scale anti-terrorist operation in Isani District of Tbilisi on November 21-22, to detain several armed suspects, who allegedly plotted terrorist attacks against diplomatic missions in Georgia and Turkey. One gunman was captured and three were killed as a result of the fighting, including a senior ISIS member Ahmed Chatayev, who was listed as a terrorist by the United States and the United Nations.

On December 26, the security forces detained five citizens of Georgia in a double operation in Tbilisi and Pankisi gorge of Akhmeta District on charges of assisting the group of militants. One of the detained – 18-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili – was shot in the head and hospitalized during the operation, following his failed attempt to activate a hand grenade, according to the December 26 statement of the State Security Service. Machalikashvili’s relatives, however, claim he was asleep when the officers entered his room and opened fire.

* Platon Gunashashvili, who was also present at the meeting, told Rustavi 2 TV on January 2 that, according to Ioseb Gogashvili, Ahmed Chatayev’s group targeted the Russian Embassy and “the children’s festival,” apparently referring to the Junior Eurovision song contest held in Tbilisi on November 26, shortly after the November 21-22 shootout. Gunashashvili, however, said the footage presented by the State Security Service official “was not audible,” and that he did not trust Gogashvili’s version.

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