Family members of a Georgian man who died in custody in the breakaway region of South Ossetia have blocked the main road connecting Russia and the South Caucasus, demanding the body be returned. The incident, and the opaque way it has been investigated, have provoked widespread condemnation.
The death of Archil Tatunashvili, a former Georgian soldier, was announced on February 23 by the de facto Committee for State Security in South Ossetia, which is still known by its Russian initials, KGB. In its account, the KGB alleges that Tatunashvili, 35, tried to grab a gun from a prison guard, lost his balance, and then fell down a staircase. He died in hospital two hours later, reportedly from “heart failure.”
The international community has been quick to condemn the death, with many blaming Russia, South Ossetia’s chief patron.
“We express our condolences to Mr. Tatunashvili’s family and call on the responsible persons, including Russian officials exercising de facto control over Georgia’s South Ossetia region, to provide the Georgian government with a full account of the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident,” the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said on February 26.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry also blamed Russia for Tatunashvili’s death, and raised issue with the “illegal detention” of two other Georgian citizens. Levan Kutashvili and Ioseb Pavliashvili remain in Tskhinvali. The three were detained on February 22. According to a report by Ekho Kavkaza, RFE/RL’s Georgia service, Tatunashvili regularly traveled in South Ossetia.
The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), set up in the aftermath of the 2008 ceasefire, said in a statement a day earlier that it continues to “follow developments closely.” EUMM said it was important that “all necessary documentation is exchanged to ascertain the cause of death” and that it looked forward to a “full, thorough and transparent examination.”
But South Ossetia’s de facto authorities have so far denied EUMM access to the territories under their control. In addition, they have rejected requests for a Georgian expert to be allowed to examine Tatunashvili’s body.
“Only independent expertise can dispel any doubts about Tatunashvili’s death,” wrote Ekho Kavkaza (RFE/RL) journalist Murat Gukemukhov. “If the KGB isn’t lying then there is no reason why they should be refusing to hand over his body to his family in Georgia.”
South Ossetia has reportedly sent the corpse to Russia for examination, bolstering such concerns. Others have disputed this report, saying that only DNA has been sent to Russia.
“In 2014 when a young ethnic Georgian, David Basharuli, was found dead in South Ossetia […] Russian experts destroyed all the skin and made it impossible to figure out [the] real reasons for his death, even with the later assistance of the best foreign laboratories,” Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst with International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter.
Tatunashvili’s family and Georgian activists have blocked several important roads in Georgia, demanding his body be returned. Authorities in South Ossetia say they will return the body eventually.
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.
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