South Ossetian authorities have refused to hand over the body of a Georgian citizen who died in custody in Tskhinvali (Tskhinval) last week under unclear circumstances. Relatives of former soldier Archil Tatunashvili blocked Georgia’s main east–west motorway, demanding the Georgian government take action.
Tatunashvili was arrested on 22 February in Akhalgori (Leningor), and died in Tskhinvali later that night. According to South Ossetia, he died after falling down from stairs while trying to escape. They also accuse him of being a Georgian informant, and ‘participating in Georgian aggression in 2004–2008’.
[Read on OC Media: Georgian citizen dies in custody in South Ossetia]
Tissue samples transferred to Russia
During an emergency Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism Meeting (IPRM) on 26 February, South Ossetian authorities refused a request from the Georgian State Security Service (SSG) to hand over his body.
According to the SSG, the South Ossetian delegation claimed tissue samples had been sent to Russia for analysis.
South Ossetian state news agency Res quoted Murat Dzhioyev, the head of the South Ossetian delegation, as saying that ‘independent experts’ will examine the cause of Tatunashvili’s death.
‘As it has already been reported, his death was a result of heart failure. This was confirmed by our preliminary examination. In order that our conclusions are confirmed by independent experts, we have sent the materials for an independent examination’, Dzhioyev said.
They said Tatunashvili’s body will be transferred to Georgian-controlled territory ‘upon the receipt of the conclusion’, according to the SSG.
The SSG criticised the South Ossetian authorities, claiming the ‘position of the de facto government is categorically unacceptable for the State Security Service of Georgia’. They vowed to continue to work to retrieve Tatunashvili’s body, who they say ‘died in unclear circumstances’.
Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a peacebuilding group, wrote on Twitter that she hoped the forensic examination in Russia would not prevent further ‘independent expertise in future’.
Backlash from Tatunashvili’s family
Soon after the IPRM meeting, around 500 supporters of Tatunashvili, including relatives and neighbours, gathered in the village of Natakhtari, near South Ossetia, and blocked the main motorway demanding that Georgian authorities react.
After protesters demanded Georgian officials visit them, Dimitri Khundadze, a majoritarian MP from the Mtskheta Region and Minister of Refugees Sozar Subari, rushed to the site, according to Radio Tavisupleba.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze tweeted from Geneva that ‘Tatunashvili is another victim of the Russian occupation of Georgian regions Abkhazia and Tskhinvali’, calling for ‘immediate access’ for international and regional human rights groups on the ground. ‘Only through international pressure, occupation and all its grave consequences can be ended, human rights protected, and international law upheld’, he added.
The family has given Georgian authorities two days to retrieve Tatunashvili’s body and ensure an investigation into his death, after which they have vowed to convene another rally.
Netgazeti quoted Paata Zakareishvili, former Minister of Reconciliation, as saying that there are ‘a number of ways’ to defend the interest of Georgian citizens in South Ossetia.
‘There should always be direct Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–Ossetian relations. We ignore this. If we had permanent contact with them, and acknowledged them as parties, we would be able to talk to many people in critical situations’, Zakareishvili said.
Two others detained
The SSG has demanded that two other Georgian citizens detained with Tatunashvili, Ioseb Pavliashvili and Levan Kutashvili, be allowed to return to Tbilisi controlled territory.
Murat Dzhioyev, the head of the South Ossetian Delegation to the IPRM, told Res the pair were released from custody on 24 February, but have been forbidden from leaving Akhalgori ‘until the investigation is concluded’.
‘Strong concerns’ over the case
The Co-Chairs of the Geneva International Discussions, set up after the August 2008 war, said in a statement on 26 February they were ‘strongly concerned’ by Tatunashvili’s death, and urged the authorities in Tskhinvali to hand over the body ‘without delay’. The Discussions are co-chaired by OSCE, EU, and UN.
The European Union, United States, and United Kingdom, also expressed concerns at his death, and called for more transparency.
[Read on OC Media: EU ‘gravely concerned’ at death in custody in South Ossetia]
James Appathurai, NATO’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, wrote on Facebook he was ‘deeply concerned’ by Tatunashvili’s death and the detention of two others.
‘The two detained Georgians should immediately be allowed to travel to Georgian administered territory’, he said.
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.