As the number of arrests in the wake of November’s deadly counterterror siege grows, the killing by security forces of a 19-year-old in Pankisi has caused controversy.
A 19-year-old terror suspect has died 15 days after being shot in the head, during a special operation in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley.
Temirlan Machalikashvili, an ethnic Kist, was fatally wounded in his house on 26 December as Georgian security forces conducted a counterterror sweep.
While the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG) maintains that the task force was forced to open fire after Machalikashvili reached for a hand grenade, his family say he was sleeping in bed at the time.
The Pankisi operation
The operation came more than a month after a counterterror siege rocked Tbilisi’s Isani District with the SSG making several arrests in the villages of Duisi and Omalo in Pankisi, as well as in Tbilisi.
Five men, all Georgian citizens, were detained during the operation, including Machalikashvili. They were accused of financing and providing other material support to terrorists.
SSG spokesperson Nino Giorgobiani said at a press conference on 26 December that the detainees were linked to the ‘group members neutralised in the course of the 21–22 November special operation conducted on Beri Gabriel Salosi Street and are their facilitators’.
Alleged connections to Chatayev
The SSG claimed that the five men — Ruslan Aldamov, Ramaz Margoshvili, Zurab Gornakashvili, Badur Chophanashvili, and Temirlan Machalikashvili — had provided assistance to Akhmed Chatayev, the alleged leader of the group, and his accomplices.
They say the men helped arrange transport for the group first from their temporary hideout in Turkey to an area on the Georgian border between the villages of Kirnati and Maradidi, and then assisted them in sneaking across.
‘The detainees facilitated the group members in terms of transportation to Tbilisi, assisted them in renting the flat, and obtaining the arms’, the statement read. In November, Georgia’s Prosecutor’s Office announced that the group had ‘illegally kept large quantities of explosives, ammunition, explosive devices and firearms purchased for terrorist purposes’.
The Counter-terror siege on 21–22 November in the outskirts of Tbilisi lasted for more than 20 hours, and despite attempts at negotiation, resulted in the death of Chatayev, a member of the Islamic State (IS) suspected of organising the deadly 2016 Istanbul Airport attack, and two other suspects. One member of the security forces was killed and four more injured during the operation.
[Read on OC Media: Three terror suspects dead after 21 hour siege in Tbilisi]
The SSG remained tight-lipped on the group, only providing additional details about the siege following the operation in Pankisi. They said Chatayev and his accomplices ‘planned to carry out terrorist attacks in Georgia and Turkey. Their aim was to attack diplomatic missions’.
[Read on OC Media: IS member Akhmed Chatayev ‘blew himself up’ in Tbilisi siege]
The SSG also disclosed the identities of Chatayev’s group. According to them, the only survivor of the group, who had falsely identified himself as Sayedi Dudayev, was in fact Shoaip Borziyev, a chechen who is on an Interpol list wanted by Russia on terror charges.
The two other suspects killed were Ibragim Adashev, a citizen of Russia who travelled to Georgia between 2010 and 2012 on a number of fake passports, and Aslanbeg Soltakhmadov, the SSG announced.
On 9 January, the SSG arrested another Pankisi resident, Zurab Idoidze, accusing him of travelling by car with Chatayev from his temporary housing in the Turkish town of Khopa to the Georgian border.
Idoidze, as well as the five others detained so far, face up to 20 years or life in prison if convicted.
A proportional response or excessive force
The SSG has come under criticism for the killing of Machalikashvili, with some accusing them of using excessive force.
Members of Machalikashvili’s family say he was asleep in his bed when security forces stormed the house.
The SSG counter that during his detention, Machalikashvili resisted security forces. According to them, when he tried to activate a hand grenade, ‘proportional force was employed due to extreme need in order to suppress criminal activity and law enforcers opened fire in his direction as a result of which Machalikashvili received firearm injuries in the head’.
When Machalikashvili was transferred to hospital in Tbilisi, members of his family repeatedly requested he be transferred abroad. He remained in coma on life support until his death on 10 January. His body has been transferred to his home in Pankisi Valley.
Machalikashvili’s mother, Mediko Margoshvili, said on 10 January she would not give up until the people responsible for her son’s death are punished. She plans to appeal the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.
Tamta Mikeladze, the head of Tbilisi-based rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), which has worked before on problems in Pankisi, said that Machalikashvilis death ‘is a murder committed by the state’. EMC has also promised to take the case to the ECHR.
They said the SSG have so far failed to prove that the use of force was necessary during the detention, and accused them of attempting to discredit Machalikashvili by releasing a video in which he is seen with members of Chatayev’s group.
‘Further marginalisation of Pankisi’
According to Mikeladze, Machalikashvili’s story has proven to be ‘a huge tragedy, both human and political, for the family and for the entire Pankisi Valley’, adding that efforts from the government to save his life were insufficient.
Machalikashvili’s mother has accused the government of intentionally denying his son’s transfer to a hospital abroad. This has been refuted by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who said it was unfortunate that Machalikashvili could not be saved, but that ‘the state and doctors did their best’ to save his life.
Negative local and international media coverage of Pankisi Valley has led to the region gaining a reputation as unsafe place, which has negatively affected the population and its image.
On 8 January, the Pankisi Times website, run by a group of young activists, published a piece titled ‘Disappointed Kist Generation’, saying ‘our ethnicity became a scandal because of the recent events. Our generation is disappointed about Georgian society’s suspicious view toward us’.
According to a statement from EMC, residents of Pankisi have for years been living in a state of ‘fear, pressure, and futility’. ‘Instead of pursuing systemic social changes necessary to overcome the political and social exclusion of people living in the Pankisi Valley, the state keeps using exclusively repressive and punitive measures’, they claimed.
In addition, the statement said that displaying Pankisi as an exceptional crisis zone allows the government to pursue ‘legitimate’ violence, and allows it to strengthen its power.
On 11 January, a number of people gathered in Tbilisi in front of the Government Administration calling for a transparent investigation into the case. Another rally was held in Pankisi.
PM reaffirms his respect to Kist community
Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said on 11 January that it is in the interest of the government that the Prosecutor’s Office investigates the case ‘objectively and effectively’, so that no questions remain unanswered.
‘That is why, in this situation, preliminary statements or preliminary conclusions affect the state’s interests’, he added.
‘Regardless of how the investigation ends, I want to offer my condolences to his family’, Kvirikashvili said.
In his statement, he said he would also like to reaffirm his respect to ‘our kist compatriots who have proved their loyalty to Georgia and its interests for centuries’. Kists, a Muslim minority group of roughly 8,000 who are related to Chechens, have lived in Georgia since the 19th century.
Kvirikashvili added that ‘there is no doubt’ over their loyalty, ‘I assure you that it is impossible for the connections to be cracked’.