A counter-terrorism raid by Georgian security forces has sparked accusations of excessive force and an investigation by the country's prosecutor's office. Analysts say the case will determine how Tbilisi polices domestic terror for years to come.
On December 26, security forces raided two villages in the Pankisi gorge, detaining four people and critically injuring another, Temirlan Machalikashvili, with a gunshot wound to the head. That incident has triggered protests in Pankisi and criticism throughout the country.
The raid followed a November 22 shootout in Tbilisi’s Isani district that resulted in the death of Ahmed Chatayev, an ISIS operative who masterminded the Istanbul Ataturk Airport bombings in 2016, and two alleged accomplices. That operation, too, sparked controversy and accusations the authorities withheld information from the public.
All four persons detained during the anti-terrorist operation in Pankisi, along with Machalikashvili, are suspected of helping Chatayev cross the border and obtain arms.
The Union of Elders, an influential civil body in Pankisi – a region populated by Kists, closely related to Chechens – issued a January 2 statement on the operation, saying the shooting should be investigated “in a timely and objective manner.”
One of the elders, Elizbar Margoshvili, initially said video evidence presented during the meeting convinced them that “what happened was a reality,” and that those detained “were indeed cooperating and communicating with Chatayev.
However, Margoshvili later retracted these statements, arguing that both the detainees and Machalikashvili had “absolutely no connection” to Chatayev’s case.
The January 2 Union of Elders statement says “part of the evidence” was presented to them, but that it was “difficult to assess [their] content.” The statement also urges the public to “refrain from making affirmative statements on the suspects’ culpability.”
Some commentators say the case has implications for wider relations between state and society. “The trial of Chatayev’s alleged co-conspirators will shape the counter-terrorism prosecution of ‘homegrown’ jihadists and demonstrate whether Tbilisi has options outside anti-travels” Georgian security analyst Bennett Clifford noted on Twitter. “It is important for the trial to be open and fair – previously, proceedings have been largely closed to the public.”
Clifford also wrote that “many Georgians (including those outside Pankisi) believe the police used disproportionate force.”
The Elders also noted that the State Security Services violated the presumption of innocence against Machalikashvili when it “stated definitively that Machalikashvili tried to resist law enforcement officers by attempting to activate a hand grenade.”
Machalikashvili’s relatives dispute that claim, saying the 19-year-old was asleep when officers entered his room and opened fire. “As soon as they broke the door, we heard the sound of shooting. He was not able to resist,” said Mediko Margoshvili, his mother.
They have demanded an investigation into the case, and are looking into pursuing proceedings through the European Court of Human Rights.
The Council of Elders also called on 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 is currently on life support in Tbilisi, with plans to transport him abroad for specialist care.
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.