New Interior Minister candidate says he would have used more force in Pankisi

5 September 2019
Vakhtang Gomelauri (info9)

Vakhtang Gomelauri, who is poised to become the next Georgian Interior Minister, has told parliament he would have used more force against residents of Pankisi.

Both Gomelauri and prospective defence minister Irakli Gharibashvili made controversial statements in front of lawmakers on Thursday during their confirmation hearings.

Gomelauri made the comments in relation to clashes between riot police and residents of northeast Georgia’s Pankisi Valley this April. 

‘I would have deployed more special task units than were sent there’, stated Gomelauri, who headed Georgia’s State Security Service (SSG) at the time. 

On 21 April, the Economy Ministry’s attempt to ensure the construction work on a hydropower plant in the valley under police presence resulted in several altercations with local residents. Some inhabitants of Pankisi used sticks and stones and burned cars while police deployed rubber bullets and tear gas against them resulting in injuries on both sides. 

[Read the OC Media view on events in Pankisi: Georgia’s show of force in Pankisi was reckless and irresponsible]

After the government came under fire from local residents and some Tbilisi-based groups, then-Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, currently slated to become Georgia’s fifth Prime Minister, pledged to prosecute both rioters and police officers who used excessive force. The promise was never followed through on.

On 5 September, Gomelauri stated in parliament that the government had to deploy riot police after regular police officers were physically confronted by Pankisi residents. 

Just like Gakharia in May, Gomelauri also conceded to MPs that the authorities should have communicated more with the local population.

Riot police clashed with local people for several hours on 21 April. (Photo: Mari Nikuradze/ OC Media)

Sulkhan Bordzikashvili, a civil activist from Pankisi, told OC Media that Gomelauri’s speech sent a worrying message.

‘From what I understood, his main message was that the violent policy enforced by his predecessor is still in place and any protest that will be voiced against the interests of the government or businesses will be squashed with even greater violence than on 21 April’, he said. 

A controversial figure in Pankisi

Gomelauri has been a controversial figure in Pankisi since the killing of 19-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili during a ‘counterterror sweep’ by the SSG in December 2017. Machalikashvili’s family, who insist Temirlan was shot dead as he slept, have repeatedly accused Gomelauri of being personally responsible for the shooting.

An investigation into the possible use of excessive force has been pending since; no one has been charged so far. 

Temirlan Machalikashvili (Facebook)

‘If there’s a conclusion that [an SSG officer] is guilty, he will be punished and go to jail. Why should I take responsibility?’, the former head of the SSG said. 

During the hearings, Gomelauri was pressed about the SSG’s claim in May that Temirlan’s father, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, had planned a ‘terror attack’ despite the security services never detaining him. 

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian security service accuse Machalikashvili of ‘plotting terror attack’]

‘It is not necessary to detain someone, the point is to prevent a crime’, he argued. 

Rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) has accused the SSG of trying to discredit the Machalikashvili family in order to avoid scrutiny of Temirlan’s killing.

During the hearing, Gomelauri also condemned what he called opposition leaders’ call to storm the parliament on 20 June. He also thanked police officers for ‘defending the state at the expense of their health’.

[Read on OC Media: Thousands clash with police as protesters try to storm Georgian Parliament]

Gomelauri, who served briefly as Interior Minister in 2015, was previously the head of security for Bidzina Ivanishvili while the Georgian billinaire led opposition forces against President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012. 

Ex-PM, now a Defence Minister-designate: ‘Just took a break’

MPs, except for those from opposition groups the United National Movement and European Georgia who boycotted the hearings, also questioned Irakli Gharibashvili.

In his address to parliament, Gharibashvili, designated as the future Defence Minister by the ruling Georgian Dream party, advocated bolstering patriotism and military service. 

‘We should start popularising this topic from the kindergartens, schools… the topic of the army should enter every family’, he insisted

He promised that the ‘ministry’, without specifying which, would unveil textbooks on the topic ‘soon’.  

Gharibashvili also spoke about mandatory military service and shared with the MPs his ‘dream’ of reinvigorating weapons production — ‘of all sorts, except nuclear’ — in Georgia and training ‘almost a million’ Georgians.

Irakli Gharibashvili (Official photo)

He also decried opposition libertarian party Girchi’s practice of registering young people of priests in their ‘Freedom Church’ to avoid conscription. 

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian opposition party registers ‘religion’ for men to avoid conscription]

He called their tactics ‘provocative, anti-state, anti-national initiatives’.

Gharibashvili, currently 37, was Prime Minister for 25 months until resigning abruptly in late December 2015 and retiring from politics, something his predecessor, Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, did in 2013. 

His successors as prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili Mamuka Bakhtadze, also followed the same route. 

In March, Garibashvili made a political comeback rejoining the Georgian Dream Party, after Ivanishvili did so ten months prior. 

‘Why did I resign? I explained everything in my [farewell] address. I don’t agree it’s right to speak about reasons beyond those’, Gharibashvili replied to one MP during the hearing. 

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