openDemocracy, 1 July 2013
Aage Borchgrevink is Senior Adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Was there a secret programme to arm and train North Caucasus militants under the previous Georgian government? A clash in the Caucasus last summer exposed secrets that Georgia needs to confront, says Aage Borchgrevink
A firefight on the border
The Lopota incident of August 2012 was the most dramatic clash in Georgia since that country’s short, bloody war with Russia in 2008. The skirmish between a group of irregular militants of mostly Chechen descent and Georgian troops on the northern border of Georgia resulted in a number of casualties. Almost a year later, however, a number of questions still linger: who were the militants, what was their relation to the former Georgian government and why were they attacked?
The story broke on 28 August 2012, when Georgian media reported that five men from the Lapankuri village close to the Russian border had been taken hostage by a group of unidentified militants. The hostages were released the same day, when the seventeen heavily-armed militants started ascending the steep Lopota Gorge towards the Dagestani section of the border and the snowcapped peaks of the greater Caucasus range.
Witnesses later said that the group had initially cooperated with Georgian officials, but this definitely changed on 28 August 2012. Georgian armed forces sealed off the gorge and launched a special operation using considerable military resources, including aircraft and special forces. During the night of 29 August they attacked the group. Villagers heard the sound of helicopters from the mountains and the sky was lit up by flares and flashes from explosions.
Eleven of the Chechen militants were killed, according to official statements, while three Georgian soldiers died in the clash. Several soldiers were wounded. The surviving militants were allegedly taken to the Turkish border and released. Some of the militants turned out to be Georgian citizens of Chechen descent (Kists), whose parents were visited by security police and warned not to make any public display of mourning or tell anyone about their dead sons. The bodies were released to the families in the middle of the night, and immediately buried.
There was no investigation of the incident, but Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared in Lapankuri village the day after the fight and made a fiery speech congratulating Georgian forces on repelling what at the time seemed to be an incursion by Muslim insurgents from Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus. Russian officials denied involvement and described the clash as ‘provocation.’
The incident took place at the height of a polarized election campaign; the ruling United National Movement (UNM) of President Saakashvili was being challenged by the opposition coalition Georgian Dream (GD) led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. While Ivanishvili campaigned against the growing authoritarianism associated with the UNM, Saakashvili portrayed Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge. The clash in Lopota seemed tailormade for Saakashvili’s anti-Russian message.
The Georgia programme of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC), a human rights group, has been running for almost twenty years, with a focus on support for local civil society. With local partners, NHC documented the grave crimes associated with the war in 2008, and the subsequent lack of effective investigation by both Russian and Georgian authorities.
The NHC has also observed several elections in Georgia. In 2008 the Committee produced a special report on the controversial Khurcha incident during the May parliamentary election: on 21 May, election day itself, a group of voters was attacked in what the Georgian authorities claimed was an armed incursion by Abkhaz and Russian forces attempting to disrupt the election. The incident occurred in a village in the demilitarized zone on the border between Georgia and the separatist region of Abkhazia. The findings of the NHC were in line with assessments by the United Nations’ Observer Mission to Georgia (UNOMIG) and local investigative journalists; the official version was considered to have serious flaws, and the conclusion was that the attack could well have been staged by the Georgian side. There was no conclusive investigation of the incident.
Early reports from our partners working on site in Lopota in September 2012 alerted the NHC to discrepancies between the statements of UNM leaders and eyewitness accounts. In early November, a team from NHC went to the Pankisi valley and Lapankuri village near the Lopota gorge, where we interviewed witnesses to the incident, including hostages taken by the militants, relatives of the dead Chechens and villagers who were near the site of the clash. UNM had been defeated in the October elections, the government had changed, and witnesses told us that they were now ready to talk, even though some of them claimed to have been warned against talking to journalists by officials of the former regime.
Our findings strongly suggested that the official version had flaws. The group of militants had come from the Georgian side of the border, not from Russia. There had been close contact between the militants and Georgian security officials, and there was evidence of a cover up after the incident. The investigative work of local journalists and NGOs corroborated our findings. A new Chief Prosecutor had been appointed by the new government, but for reasons of national security, he was not tasked with investigating the case. It later appeared that although autopsies apparently had been conducted on some of the militants, the forensic reports had subsequently been lost.
The Ombudsman’s Report
Georgian Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili started investigating the matter. On 1 April this year he released his damning report. Based on extensive interviews and documentary evidence, the report alleges that the militants came mostly from the Chechen diaspora in Europe. Members of the group had received documents and weapons from Georgian officials and training at military bases. They were hosted in Tbilisi flats by the Ministry of Interior. They had been promised access to the Russian border, where they apparently wanted to join the armed insurgency in Chechnya. According to Nanuashvili’s report, the actual number of militants killed may have been seven and not eleven.
Moreover, witnesses suggested that this was not an isolated event. Apparently, bearded men from abroad had been arriving for some years, and by 2012 as many as one hundred and twenty militants had received support. Nanuashvili’s report indicates the existence of a secret programme, run by officials of Georgia’s previous UNM government, to arm and train Chechen and Islamist militants. Ex-president Saakashvili has rejected the allegations, pointing out that they tallied with Russian claims. While a number of former officials have attacked the Ombudsman’s report, some have corroborated it.
The affair raises a number of questions. Why were the militants attacked by the very institutions that had not long before, apparently, armed them and transported them to the site? Why has there not been an effective investigation? What was the aim of the programme? Was Georgia supporting insurgent and criminal activities in Russia? Were there plans to deploy militant groups inside Georgia, too? These questions need answers. If not, Georgia risks being seen as a ‘terrorist state’, as former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili expressed it, when he rejected the Ombudsman’s allegations.
Lack of legal accountability and democratic oversight of the activities and archives of the security services has been a fundamental problem in Georgia’s troubled transition from Soviet system. Nanuashvili called for the establishment of an investigative commission in Parliament to establish the facts in the Lopota case. The need for parliamentary oversight of Georgian security services is glaring, yet such a body has so far not been formed.
The need for an effective investigation
By releasing political prisoners and investigating crimes associated with the former regime, the new government under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has addressed key human rights issues. After the Boston terrorist attacks, the joint issues of armed insurgency, human rights violations, terrorism and regional instability in the Caucasus are once more receiving international attention. In a TV interview on 27 April, Ivanishvili promised a thorough investigation of the Lopota incident. The FBI Director Robert Mueller visited Georgia in May, officially in order to discuss security during the upcoming Sochi Olympics, but perhaps also to learn more about North Caucasus militants in Georgia.
It is troubling, however, that the investigation is being handled by the counter-intelligence department of the Ministry of the Interior, i.e. the very institution suspected of involvement in the case. While the government has replaced top officials from the previous administration, many others remain in position, including in the Interior Ministry.
The defence of national security should be based on the rule of law, rather than on the concealment of suspected crimes. Georgia is rightly concerned that Russia in effect occupies large parts of its territory, but this problem should not be addressed by providing unlawful military assistance to irregular militants. If Georgia is serious about avoiding the authoritarian mistakes of former governments, it should conduct an independent, thorough and transparent investigation of the Lopota incident.