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‘Leaked evidence’ links Pankisi’s Temirlan Machalikashvili to terror groups

3 July 2018
Temirlan Machalikashvili

Several Georgian media outlets have cited evidence from the official investigation into the shooting of 19-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili by the security services suggesting he had links to terrorists. Rights group EMC has accused the authorities of conducting an ‘information war’ against Temirlan, who the Machalikashvili family insists was innocent.

On Sunday, TV Imedi’s Imedis Kvira programme claimed to have obtained a deleted WhatsApp conversation, evidence from the investigation, between Temirlan and an unknown person. They claimed the messages had been ‘restored by American experts’ from Temirlan’s phone, which was found in the room he was shot.

The report said the conversation happened two days prior to the special operation and included Temirlan referencing istishhad (meaning ‘martyrdom’ in Arabic) and ‘blowing up Christians’. ‘And just like that, I'm going to blow myself up in the city, at the Station Square metro stop’, one of the messages reads.

Temirlan’s father, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, told OC Media that even though these messages came from Temirlan’s phone, he believes his son was messaging a girl and speaking facetiously. ‘We could also read the text, right?’, Machalikashvili said, ‘99% of it was falsified in translation’. The father said his 19-year-old son had other dreams to pursue rather than blowing himself up at a metro station.

‘Connection to Akhmed Chatayev’

On 25 June, Kviris Kronika reported that the official investigation had uncovered the phone records of Akhmed Chatayev, who blew himself up after a 20–hour counter-terror siege in Tbilisi in November,  from the village of Kirnati after allegedly crossing the Turkish-Georgian border illegally on 28 October. Among the numbers Chatayev was reported to have called was one registered to Temirlan Machalikashvili.

Akhmed Chatayev (/Dosh)

Imedi claimed to have obtained an audio message from the investigation, from Ramaz Margoshvili, Temirlan’s neighbour from Pankisi who was arrested for helping Chatayev, asking Temirlan for his personal information in order to wire rent money from Europe.

Prime Time and Imedi claimed to have information from the investigation suggesting the rent was for a flat in Tbilisi’s Varketili district, in which Chatayev and his group stayed prior to the flat on Gabriel Salosi Street, which was the scene of the counter-terrorism operation.

Georgian media claimed to have tracked down the owner of the flat, who confirmed that Temirlan had lived there with two others — Aslambek Soltakhmadov and Shoayp Borziyev, both wanted by Interpol for 'participating in an illegal armed formation’.

Temirlan’s parents also confirm that their son lived in the flat while studying in Tbilisi. His mother, Mediko Machalikashvili, told the Public Broadcaster that Soltakhmadov and Borziyev had lived at Ramaz Margoshvili’s house in Pankisi for some time, and they were known ‘by everyone’.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili, Temirlan’s father, told OC Media that Margoshvili’s guests did not arouse any suspicion. According to him, when he was looking for a flat to rent for Temirlan during his studies in Tbilisi, Margoshvili ‘a good acquaintance’, offered his Varketili apartment. Machalikashivli said his son later moved to another flat.

‘Information war’

The investigation into Temirlan’s shooting as well as media reports surrounding the case have been criticised by the Machalikashvili family as well as rights groups.

Tamta Mikeladze from the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) told OC Media that the initial investigation into excessive use of force by the State Security Services (SSG) unit that killed Temirlan was supervised by the SSG itself, which ‘jeopardised the standard of institutional independence in the investigation’, adding that Temirlan Machalikashvili was not formally accused of a criminal offence while he was still alive.

Mikeladze said the leaks from the investigation appearing in the media ‘look like an information war’, adding that information reported by about the case was ‘exclusively under control of the state’, as neither the family and its advocates nor any other third party had formal access to it.

EMC previously criticised the Prosecutor’s Office and SSG for ‘attempts to discredit Machalikashvili beyond legal processes’.

Temirlan’s father Malkhaz Machalikashvili said he expected the authorities to spread ‘dirty lies and rumours’ about his son. ‘Georgia’s State Security Service is spending all its energy and resources on justifying the killing of a child who did nothing wrong’, he told OC Media.

He said media reports about Temirlan’s connections to terrorists intensified after he threatened to hold a protest in front of the SSG’s offices.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili gained prominence after speaking out against misuse of power by the authorities in front of thousands at recent street protests in Tbilisi over the Khorava Street Murders.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili (right) addressing the crowd outside parliament during the Khorava Street Murders protests (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

On 26 June, the leaders of the protests, Zaza Saralidze, the father of one of two teens killed in a school brawl in December, and Zviad Kuprava, visited Malkhaz in Pankisi.

Machalikashvili told them he was figuring out ‘how to fight law enforcement agencies within the law’ and vowed to ‘continue fighting to the end’ to ‘make the guilty pay’ — for both Saralidze’s and his son’s deaths. In a Facebook post on Monday, Saralidze listed circumstances that ‘raised questions’ about Temirlan’s case and demanded they ‘be answered urgently and publicly’.

Access to the investigation

Tamta Mikeladze from EMC criticised the Prosecutor’s Office for restricting outside access to the investigation, as the Machalikashvili family has not been recognised as an injured party. EMC has urged the authorities to grant the family access to the investigation.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili told OC Media the investigation was made confidential from the start and that the authorities had provided the family with no information regarding its progress.

He said former Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze had promised him access to the case, but that this ‘turned out to be a dirty lie’, adding that the office of new PM Mamuka Bakhtadze had not contacted his family.

Malkhaz also said he hopes the Public Defender makes good progress with her own enquiry into the case, and that he is thinking about taking it to the European Court of Human Rights as soon as possible.

The Prosecutor’s Office told OC Media that their investigation into the possible use of excessive force by security forces is still ongoing.

Counter-terror siege

The counter-terror siege on 21–22 November in the outskirts of Tbilisi resulted in the deaths of three terror suspects, including Chatayev — a member of the Islamic State suspected of organising the deadly 2016 Istanbul Airport attack — and the arrest of Shoayp Borziyev, who operated under the alias of Sayedi Dudayev. One member of the security forces was also killed and four others injured during the operation.

The special operation in Tbilisi’s Isani District left four people dead (Luka Pertaia/OC Media)

The State Security Service (SSG) also 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: Three terror suspects dead after 21 hour siege in Tbilisi]

In a counter-terror sweep in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley following the siege, Temirlan Machalikashvili, an ethnic Kist, was shot in the head and never regained consciousness, dying from his injury 15 days later. While the SSG maintains that the task force was forced to open fire after Machalikashvili reached for a hand grenade, his family says he was in bed sleeping at the time.

Temirlan was among five detained by the SSG in late December. He, together with Ruslan Aldamov, Ramaz Margoshvili, Zurab Gornakashvili, and Badur Chopanashvili, were suspected of supporting and facilitating Chatayev and his group.

After a 4 January press briefing which showed surveillance footage of Temirlan together with Borziyev and Sultakhmatov in Tbilisi — suggesting a connection between Temirlan and Chatayev — the authorities did not officially release any further information. However, information claimed to be a part of the official investigation has featured regularly in Georgian media.

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