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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

South Ossetia Diary

We Tbilisi based journalists cannot enter Tskhinvali, South Ossetia from Georgia. We must go to Moscow and get Russian press accreditation and travel several thousand kilometers south, which makes you wonder what this whole South Ossetian independence thing is all about.

Even before the war South Ossetia was a difficult place to report from, as we were nearly always appointed a minder to shadow us and introduce us to people we could talk to. These people said what a great man their leader Eduard Kokoity was and what animals Georgians were. Tskhinvali was a sad little isolated world trapped in a Soviet time warp that ended in 1991 and would not advance a minute past.

Last month I met with Alan Parastayev, the former head of the South Ossetia's North Military HQ during the 1991 war with Georgia, Minister of Interior in 1994-1999 in the Chiborv government, and Chief Justice of South Ossetia's Supreme Court under Kokoity.

In 2005, Kokoity ordered his arrest. Parastayev states the beef stemmed from the illegitimate party lists Kokoity had submitted for upcoming parliamentary elections that he blocked .

Consequently, Parastayev was asked to resign but he refused until his 25 year-old son was imprisoned on a trumped up charge and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Parastayev resigned on the condition his son would be freed, but his captors reneged and he was arrested, beaten and charged for “committing a terrorist act” against de facto MP Bala Bestaute a year earlier by detonating a bomb near his home.

On the pretense of being released, Parastayev was persuaded, after being tortured and drugged, to read a prepared statement stating that the Georgian secret service had offered him US$220,000 to “commit a terrorist act against President Kokoity.” He insists the last line of the text was “but I refused.” That didn't matter to Kokoity.

After 17 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, Parastayev was sentenced to 18 years for betraying his homeland and preparing an act of terror against the president.

“I still don't understand what those charges meant,” he says.

When Georgia began its offensive against Tskhinvali in August 2008, the prison was under constant bombardment and authorities opened the gates and set the prisoners free. Parastayev and his son were in Tskhinvali on the 8th and 9th and got word that Kokoity, who had left Tkshinvali on the 6th, discovered prisoners had been freed and ordered the murder of the two Parastayevs. They fled to Georgia where Parasayev now works as the deputy minister of the newly created Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assitance.

Parastayev compares Kokoity's Tskhinvali to the USSR in 1937 where “you can't say a word against Kokoity, nobody dare says their thoughts,” he says. “Until Kokoity came, the word “terrorist” wasn't heard – we didn't have terrorist acts, they came with him."

I wanted to write a story about Parastayev and another dissident, Dimitri Sanakoev who also had fought against Georgia and then led the alternative unrecognized government of South Ossetia, which had been backed by Tbilisi. But the story didn't pan out. I did, however, stumble upon this story, which I did for Eurasianet with my pal Sophia Mizante.