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Abkhazian flag arsonist sentenced to nine years in prison

9 December 2020
Irakli Bebua. Photo via Mtavari Arkhi.

A resident of Abkhazia arrested for burning an Abkhazian flag has been sentenced to nine years in prison.

Russian state media Sputnik Abkhazia reported that Irakli Bebua was convicted by a court in Gali (Gal) under three articles of the criminal code, illegal possession of weapons, desecration of the state flag, and deliberate destruction or damage to property. The authorities claimed to have found a grenade in his home.

The 27-year-old, who is a citizen of Georgia, was arrested after he tried to set fire to a flag-shaped canvas near the House of Culture in Gali. The incident took place on 30 September, the day the authorities in Abkhazia celebrate Victory and Independence Day.

After Bebua was detained, a video was circulated online in which he confessed that he deliberately damaged the flag in protest against ‘celebrating that we [Georgians and Abkhaz] are no longer brothers’.

The Georgian Security Service said they had raised the issue with the co-chairs of the Geneva Discussions, a body set up to mediate the conflict.

‘The issue of the unconditional release of Irakli Bebua, along with other Georgian citizens who are illegally imprisoned in the occupied territories, will be raised during the next round of Geneva discussions, which are scheduled for 10–11 December’, the SSG said.

Georgian rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) published a statement on 9 December appealing to the government of Georgia to use all available diplomatic and political measures to facilitate Bebua’s transfer to Georgian-controlled territory and to ensure the protection of his health, safety, and other fundamental rights.

Discrimination against ethnic Georgians in Gali

In October, seven Georgian human rights groups including EMC, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), and the Democracy Research Institute (DRI), released a joint statement demanding Bebua’s health be monitored and ensure he had the opportunity to talk to his family.

In a joint appeal to the Georgian government and diplomatic corps in Tbilisi, the groups cited several cases of discrimination against ethnic Georgians, including that of Irakli Kvaratskhelia.

Kvaratskhelia, 29, reportedly hanged himself in an interrogation room after being detained by Russian border guards in March 2019 for ‘illegal border crossing’ near the now defunct Khurcha-Nabakevi checkpoint.

The circumstances of his death caused the family to suspect that Kvaratskhelia could have been mistreated.

In June, the Human Rights Commissioner of Abkhazia criticised what she said were discriminatory policies towards residents of Gali District, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Georgians, including difficulties in obtaining official documents.

A 2005 law stripped many Georgians living in Abkhazia of Abkhazian citizenship, which was granted under a previous law passed in 1993. The new leadership of Abkhazia under President Aslan Bzhania has proposed revising the law, but has faced backlash from opposition groups.

[Read on OC Media: Not all citizens are equal: Abkhazia's passport policy]

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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