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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Svaneti Blues


There used to be a time not long ago at all when the only people that dared to venture to the high mountainous region of Svaneti unescorted were the gutsy or the oblivious. Svaneti was as notorious as the Pankisi Gorge in terms of criminality, the only difference was Pankisi was home to a Chechen-Georgian Interior Ministry cartel while Svaneti was a homogeneous enclave run by local bandits.

Things are different today. The law and order byproduct of the Saakashvili government effectively put an end to the stories of kidnappings, high-jackings and tourists returning to Tbilisi with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. Wander aimlessly into Mestia today and the only waylaying you are likely to encounter is a chacha ambush. This doesn’t mean the criminals are gone, however. They just stopped robbing tourists.

Now the National Movement guys are doing great things in terms of reform and development and have grand plans to turn Svaneti into a Zermatt of the Caucasus. So if you’re on their side, your future is bright. If you’re not on their side, well then, you are surely against them – as they think like American neocons. What this means in Svaneti, the land of legendary blood feuds, is that you will be screwed till you bleed and there is nothing you can do about it because the scales of justice are in their hands.

On May 3, 2010 witnesses backed by video footage implicated Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Governor, Zaza Gorozia, regional police chief, Tengiz Gunava, Mestia police chief, Giorgi Shedania, his deputy Joni Belkania, Interior Ministry officer, Anzor Margiani, Mestia ruling party MP Kandid Kvitsiani, Mestia governor, Gocha Chelidze, and others in a pre-election intimidation case in Mestia, Svaneti. Apparently, 8 people from the opposition Freedom Party were forcibly taken to the Mestia administration building and persuaded to sign pre-drafted withdrawals from the elections, in which 4 signed and 4 refused. 5 criminal offenses were recorded: obstruction of expression of will in an election, coercion, act of threat, violence, and abuse of authority.

Unsurprisingly, not a single charge has been brought against any of the perpetrators, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence against them. The three whistle blowers, however, have not fared as lucky.

Neli Naveriani, a local council person and member of the now defunct Alliance for Georgia opposition party, was arrested with three of her relatives for extortion in an allegedly illegitimate real estate deal. Issues over land ownership have been a point of contention between some locals and Tbilisi because Svans have traditionally recognized ownership of property for generations without deeds, while the government aims to quickly buy up land slated for rapid development.

NGOs like the Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and human rights activists see the high profile Naveriani case, which was carried out swiftly and televised, as retribution, particularly when compared to how immobile the coercion cases against the authorities has gone and how her two colleagues have endured similar fates.

Labor Party member, Aleksander Khehrgiani, had also witnessed the May intimidation event and gone public. In August he got into an argument with former Mestia Governor Gocha Chelidze, who supposedly insulted Khehrgiani’s mother and was subsequently slapped in the face. A couple days later, some of Chelidze’s cronies informed him that criminal charges were being made against Khehrgiani’s son for the violent act, however, they gave Khehrgiani the option of serving jail time instead. Both Khehrgiani and his son have reportedly left Mestia to seek support among the NGO and international community.

At 4 am on August 10th, the cops arrested Davit Zhorzholiani at his Tbilisi apartment for assault with intent to harm. Davit is not political and works as a Svaneti region mountain guide, but his brother Kakha was with Naveriani and Khehrgiani on May 3rd and witnessed the way authorities allegedly intimidated and coerced the 8 opposition individuals. Kakha also spoke out publicly about the political motives behind Naveriani’s arrest.

On July 26th, Davit, his father and aunt were driving in central Mestia and were struck by Murtzav Kvitsiani, brother of the Mestia police chief. An argument between Davit and Kvitisiani ensued and Kvitisiani pulled a knife. Some guys hanging out in the center square ran over to help break it up and things got a bit out of hand. There were many witnesses, including two cops and a hotel video camera. Kvitisiani apparently fell and injured his head. Kvitisiani claimed he did not see who had hit him, nobody was questioned or report filed to the police. In the two weeks between the altercation and arrest, Davit had traveled freely in Svaneti. After his arrest, he was taken into custody and held in a typically overcrowded Midnight Express jail cell without bail, or proof of guilt for two months.

The complaint filed against Davit Zhorzholiani, who maintains his innocence, states he hit Kvitsiani over the head with a stone, although Kvitsiani testified in court on October 5 that he didn’t know who hit him. The prosecution based the case on the testimony of two policemen who claimed they saw Davit take a stone and smash it in the Kvitsiani’s head. The hotel video footage could not be used because it self erases every 14 days, which might explain why it took the police two weeks to arrest Davit.

In the appeal case on October 15th, Davit was expected to accept a plea bargain for his release, however, the deal was withdrawn at the last minute, his lame ass lawyer was not prepared with a defense in such a circumstance and Davit was sentenced to 3 years in prison for aggravated violence.

Davit Zhorzholiani is just one victim of Georgia’s kangaroo court system. I have seen how the system (which adopted the international Convention on the Rights of the Child) initially sentenced a 14 year old to 12 years in prison for not killing a man who recanted his testimony 3 times, while sardonically sentencing 4 interior ministry officers eight-year and seven-year sentences for the brutal January 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani before ultimately being pardoned. Monitor Studio’s Nino Zuriashvili and Alex Kvatashidze documented how a spiteful Irakli Kodua who headed the MoI’s Special Operation Dept. framed Kvicha and Gocha Mildiani and Lasha Khorguani because of a mistaken phone call. No television station would broadcast the documentary.

Despite all the lip service paid to Georgia’s judicial reform, the wheels of Georgian justice continue to steamroll over whoever the prosecutor puts under the wheel, as the country still has a nearly 100% conviction rate. In Georgia, rule of law clearly works in favor of the ruler.