Georgia: Security Forces' Killing of Teenager Runs Risk of Alienating Isolated Muslim Region
A teenager shot during the counter-terrorism operations in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge has died, sparking protest in one of the country’s most isolated regions.
Temirlan Machalikashvilli died in the early hours of January 10, following a gunshot wound to the head. He had been in intensive care for two weeks. The victim’s relatives say Georgian authorities were unwilling to save his life, and withheld information from the family that a German clinic had agreed to help the 19-year-old Machalikashvilli.
The mother of the deceased, Aiza Margoshvili, had strong words for the police officers responsible for the shooting.
“They, these fascists, killed my son! All for nothing,” she said, according to the news site Sova.
Earlier, the boy’s father, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, warned that he was ready to take extreme actions if the authorities did not find suitable treatments for his son.
“Chechens, numbering one million, fought with 146 million Russians. Fought, despite their small number. I do not want to go against Georgia, against my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Even if I lose 10 children, I do not want it. But do not force me.”
The shooting took place on December 26 during a counter-terrorism operation when police opened fire after Machalikashvili allegedly attempted to throw a grenade. His family strongly deny that claim, saying the boy was asleep in his bed when officers stormed the building.
The Prosecutor’s Office is conducting an investigation into allegations that the security forces employing excessive force.
Public defender Nino Lomjaria promised to do everything in her power to determine whether “timely medical assistance was rendered to Temirlan Machalikashvili and whether everything was done to save the young man’s life.”
Online debate has been heated. Joanna Paraszczuk, a security analyst focusing on Russian-speaking Islamists, noted the response of Georgians on social media. “Lots of reactions on Facebook from people (not only from Pankisi) who are angry at the death of Temirlan Machalikashvili and blaming the government.”
Neil Hauer, an analyst of North Caucasus security issues, wrote on Twitter that the incident will serve to further alienate the region. “What a disaster. Young Chechen/Kist man wounded by Georgian security forces in Pankisi dies in hospital” he wrote. “This is sure to further isolate Pankisi community from Tbilisi.”
The Pankisi Gorge, 160 miles from Tbilisi, is populated by Kists – an ethnic group closely related to neighboring Chechens. The region came to global attention with the rise of Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Omar al-Shishani, a resident of Pankisi who became the military commander of ISIS in Syria. He was killed in 2016.
The region’s reputation as an extremist hotbed is likely exaggerated, but it has nevertheless been a persistent headache for the Georgian government. In January 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that ISIS was using Pankisi as rear base from which to attack Russia. There have also been reports that Tbilisi has in the past trained Pankisi residents to fight Russia in Chechnya.
Gela Vasadze, a Georgian security analyst, appealed for the government to take greater care with its Kist population.
“Despite the rather difficult situation in which they have been for more than a decade, Kists have always maintained loyalty to Georgia” he wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s time to demand from those involved not only to investigate in detail the whole chain that led to the tragedy, but also to stop using our citizens in the dirty political games of other countries.”
“We need an open dialogue with the inhabitants of the gorge and the adoption of a set of measures to prevent such tragedies” he added. “If we do not realize this simple truth – that the security of the country is the security of all our citizens, including citizens of the Pankisi Gorge, we will be doomed to repeat such tragedies.”