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Someone intentionally set the community centre in Pankisi valley on fire two weeks ago. The official investigation is still in progress, while the parties, involved or associated with the incident, blame it on each other.
Old traditions are still retained in Pankisi Valley, in the north east of Georgia on the border with Chechnya. The majority of the valley’s 6,000 residents are Kists, a subgroup of Chechens, and disputes are often solved within the community according to customary law.
Several years ago, a non-governmental organisation, the Kakheti Regional Development Fund (KRDF), came to the valley and established a community centre. The centre’s main activities involved providing free training to about 600 young people in various subjects and crafting. They also occasionally organised cultural events.
On 3 January, an attempt was made to burn down the community centre. The door to the resources room, where all of the centre’s computers are located, was set alight. The building’s guard managed to extinguish the fire.
Initial accusations were directed towards Salafi Muslims in Pankisi, who inhabit the region together with a Sufi Muslim minority.
On 10 January, a discussion was held in Duisi, a village in Pankisi, where interested parties discussed the incident and came to the conclusion that a third party was responsible for what happened. But earlier, before the meeting, local media outlets were reporting the alleged responsibility of Salafis.
During the meeting in Duisi, a spokesperson for the Salafi community, Vakhtang Pareulidze, criticised Khaso Khangoshvili, head of the Council of Elders, for his statements accusing Salafis of responsibility for the incident.
The Council of Elders is an informal body consisting of elderly Sufi men in the valley, who address disputes within the community according to the local customary law — adat. They act as a court in the region, with people sometimes appealing directly to the council to solve disputes instead of the police or the official courts.
Iza Bekauri, head of the KRDF, claims that she has received a number of threats over social networks, with strangers demanding that she and her organisation halt activities in the valley and leave, but she cannot identify the people behind the threats.
‘I received threats a number of times that forced me to leave Pankisi, but I would never imagine that someone could do anything like this. I don’t know who they are, as they usually register with different usernames and write comments under different names’, Bekauri tells us.
On 4 January, the Imam of Salafis in Pankisi, Bekkhan Pareulidze, denied accusations of Salafis’ responsibility for the incident in a short statement published on Facebook, where he remarked that the fire was an attempt to discredit Muslims in Pankisi.
‘We want to call on everyone to be more responsible about what they say and to stop accusing people or groups of people without any evidence or facts to prove them’, his statement reads.
In 2011, KRDF supported women in Pankisi to establish the Council of Women, which was a revolutionary precedent for the community where the Council of Elders had always ruled.
The Council of Women was established in order to protect women’s rights, but unlike the Council of Elders, they don’t have the right to make final decisions in solving disputes.
At first, people were against of the Council of Women, fearing it would diminish the authority of the Council of Elders and that it would contradict their customs and religion. But Guliko Kavtarashvili, the leader of the Council of Women, tells OC Media that the council usually considers cases related to women, and they make decisions only after consulting and agreeing with the Council of Elders.
Ms Bekauri, who is also a member of the Council of Women, said that dissatisfaction increased towards her and her organisation after they organised a rally to counter violence against women. The rally was held in the yard of the community centre on November 26.
‘We joined the rally protesting violence against women and people were angry with us, but we met with their [the Salafi] leaders and I thought that all of it was over’, she says.
For a while, Bekauri considered the option of leaving Pankisi with the organisation and closing all of their projects, but a few days ago, the organisation’s lawyer, Murad Kavtarashvili, explained that as a soon as the office is restored, the organisation will continue its usual activities.
Leila Bekauri, a member of the Council of Women, told us that she cannot rule out the involvement of any group in this incident, but she believes that the centre’s activities also benefit the Salafi community, as their children are also trained in the community centre which was burned.
‘Their children go there. Some of our employees are Salafi and this is why I think it would not benefit them [to attack the centre]. Possibly the culprit also thought that they would commit the crime and people would blame them[Salafis]’, Bekauri told OC Media.
Vakhtang Pareulidze, a member of the Salafi community , tells us that they weren’t against the rally to counter violence against women, as they oppose violence against women as well and they even conduct lectures on this topic occasionally, but he also remarked that they cannot see the necessity of having the Council of Women in the community.
Another member of the Salafi community, Musa Pankiseli, believes that this was more like a provocation rather than an attempt to burn the building.
‘Just half an hour after the incident they accused us, why would we need to do this? We never use threats, arson, or vandalism as methods, we can only speak’, he told OC Media.
During the discussion in Duisi, Sopio Shamanidi, advisor to the President, remarked that the parties do not blame each-other for the incident and the administration will continue active cooperation with the KRDF.
‘We have all agreed that a crime was committed. There was agreement during the I meeting, and I want to thank the representatives of the Salafi community, the Council of Elders, and NGOs, for finally shedding light on this’, she said.
She also remarked that the administration is in contact with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and that several avenues of investigation are being pursued.
Ucha Nanuashvili, the Public Defender of Georgia, says that the presumption of innocence has to be protected in this case and urged people to wait for the investigation to be completed. He also emphasised the importance of guaranteeing security for the media and civil society in Pankisi.
The Akhmeta police force is investigating the case, which carries a jail sentence of one to three years.