26.04.2014 Author: Seth Ferris

A Pandora’s Box: Georgian Local Elections, Starting from Samegrelo

565464Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 13 Apr.’14 / 01:35 “Tengiz Gunava will run as UNM’s candidate for the post Zugdidi municipality’s head (gamgebeli). Gunava, ex-chief of police in Samegrelo, served as governor of the region in 2013 under then president Mikheil Saakashvili.”

There is a fine line between politics and the Georgian criminal justice system, with “top cops” often ending up in local government. However, the upcoming June 15 elections in Samegrelo, a remote region bordering Abkhazia, are featuring such a line-up of dodgy characters that they are interesting from both a regional and geopolitical perspective.

Take Tengiz Gunava as a prime example. The former head of the Samegrelo police department has an interesting CV and criminal record. He chaired the Interior Ministry’s internal investigations unit after another notorious enforcement, his friend Bacho Akhalaia, was appointed Minister. They both resigned concurrently, either by chance or design.

More recently the Georgian Prosecutor charged Akhalaia with abuse of power, illegal deprivation of liberty and torture; he is still detained, but his protégé is free to stand in the local elections.

Now the story is starting to get interesting.

A history of a candidate with a rap sheet

In November 2012 Tengiz Gunava was arrested on charges of illegally carrying and keeping weapons and drug offences. He claimed that the charges against him were set up and he was subsequently released on bail soon after (18 Nov 2012).

He was then rearrested (29 Nov 2012) for embezzling USD 36, 000 and 3,000 litres of gasoline when he was serving as the Interior Ministry’s internal investigations unit head in 2012 . On December 1st 2012 another charge was added: that of shooting in the feet, back in March, his own driver, Kakhaber Izoria, and Bakur Gulua, former chair of the Special Operations Department of Svaneti, a high

This latter arrest did arouse controversy as five policemen who took part in it were subsequently sacked. Nevertheless, despite him being a defendant in a criminal case, Gunava was soon appointed governor of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti by former president Saakashvili in January 2013.

Interestingly enough, some human rights groups found reasons to raise concern about Gunava’s detention. They did not express the same concern about the police officers who were dismissed because of him, nor their wounded colleagues.

Gunava was sentenced to eight years in jail, reduced to four years under a general amnesty on 12 July 2013, but was pardoned by Saakashvili 19 days later and reinstated as Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Governor on August 1st.

“Tengiz Gunava’s release was not only legal, but fair too. (…) We must not enable the government to oppress any person only because they don’t like them”, Mikheil Saakashvili said.

Gunava’s conviction was expunged from the record, and he returned clean as a tablecloth from the laundry.

Who is he?

Now, even the most sincere civil libertarian would wonder: who is this man? Why is he guaranteed such support from his own party? Who would want or trust him as a candidate after such a documented criminal record?

Candidate Gunava is now complaining about a “new campaign” of persecution against him, as he has once again been called to the Prosecutor’s Office following the testimony of a former policeman who had been arrested for the illegal storage of weapons at the time Gunava was the Chief of Police, based on discussions with locals.

“Everyone in the Ministry of Internal Affairs knows what this former officer was doing – he was suspected of selling the drugs that were found during the operation. The weapons were also discovered in his house. I do not know what he is accusing me of now. I was called to the Prosecutor’s Office on the basis of the anger of a former policeman. During my work in the police a lot of drug dealers were arrested and they all say they are not guilty. It turns out I have to go to the Prosecutor’s Office every time someone says a foolish thing” Gunava said.

What Gunava has not said is that the weapons cache could not have been the work of one man. It contained large quantities of ammunition, explosives and detonators, grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons, and also psychotropic substances including heroin and cocaine.

Alongside these items were illegally obtained archives of personal information about opponents of the UNM government, whom the UNM were intending to detain on false charges if they had managed to round up the 2012 elections to their usual standard. 13, 000 surveillance video files depicting severe torture and sexual violence were also uncovered, including handwritten notes which incriminated various UNM figures in these actions, and the initial establishment of this “rainy day” weapons and drugs stockpile.

Many locals say that the cache was actually established by Megis Kardava, another associate to the Akhalaia clan and accordingly a former enforcer and asset of, Saakashvili’s government. He could not have done this without the blessing of the West, nor could he have establish the system of torture sites, safe houses and underground bunkers where those who opposed Mikheil Saakashvili were taken and subjected to beatings and male on male rapes.

It should be remembered that on March 18, 2014 Kokhta Todua and Megis Kardava, high ranking MIA officers, were sentenced to 9 years for their involvement in building this cache. Irakli Akhalaia (another policeman), Paata Kiria, Koba Todua, Giorgi Bulia and Temur Ubiria – a mentally handicapped person who wass used by the former regime to conduct the male-on-male rapes – he and others received sentences ranging from two to nine years. Two others indicted, Marlen Khvitia and Gocha Shonia cut plea bargain agreements.

Megis Kardava is currently wanted by Interpol and allegedly under the protection of Turkish intelligence, as an asset. His brother Levan, former Director of the Georgian Counterintelligence Agency (Constitutional Security Department, CSD) was arrested twice: on November 15, 2012 with the former deputy minister of interior Shota Khizianishvili and another 10 MIA officials for abuse of power and unsanctioned, illegal monitoring of citizens via social networks. In January 2013, they were released because of the general amnesty.

Again, last month he was imprisoned together with Giorgi Mazmiashvili for premeditated murder, abuse of power and falsifying evidence, along with the former director of the CSD, Data Akhalaia.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Data Akhalaia’s latest charges relate to the CSD’s special operation on January 12, 2006 near Navtlughi bus station, where three young men were murdered with the utmost cruelty: Marad Artmeladze, Roman Surmanidze and Murad Gorgadze.

Georgian media reported

(…) in early 2006, Bachana Akhalaia was appointed to the position of the Head of the Penitentiary Department at that time and his brother Davit Akhalaia in the capacity of the Director of the Constitutional Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia decided to demonstrate what force they would use society, and to instill among inmates and to introduce publicly the so called “zero tolerance” policy.

To this end, Davit Akhalaia planned the violent special operation upon the use of information on the alleged escape plan of prisoners. On 12 January 2006, Davit Akhalaia together with his subordinated officials Levan Kardava, Giorgi Mazmishvili, the Head of the Special Task Force Shalva Tatukhashvili and currently unidentified officers arrived at the vicinity of “NAVTLUKHI” Bus Station. They understand, based on claimed operational intelligence that at around 9:00, 17 years old Murad Gorgadze, the brother of one of the inmates Gia Gorgadze, being preliminarily selected and targeted for murdering as well as his friends 21 years old Roman Surmanidze and 23 years old Marad Artmeladze should have to arrive at the mentioned place. Davit Akhalaia, Giorgi Mazmishvili, Levan Kardava and other officers of the CSD being armed with firearms reached the aforesaid territory immediately after the arrival of the M. Gorgadze and his friends. The latter had no firearms. Having commissioned by Davit Akhalaia, the innocent youngsters were besieged and no theoretical chance has been remained for their survival from the very outset.

Although, in response to the above-mentioned Davit Akhalaia together with his accomplices opened the fire deliberately without further warning and delay in order to murder them. Due to initial wounds, all of them fell on the ground. Then having approached the wounded youngsters, Davit Akhalaia put the barrel of the firearm on the head of Murad Gorgadze and made the control shot. Giorgi Mazmishvili and the officers accompanying them did the same. As a result of shooting, 12, 5 and 6 wounds were inflicted to M. Gorgadze, M. Artmeladze and R. Surmanidze respectively. They died on the spot from control shots to head- to finish them off.

These law enforcers then proceeded to plant evidence and claimed resistance from the three planted firearms near the corpses. For PR effect, The Press Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia headed by Gurgen (Guram) Donadze recorded the staged special operation on the video tape in order to share it with Georgian Society

Other Examples

Other examples of local police include Emzar Maisuradze, the former Inspector-Investigator of the Zugdidi Police who was arrested on 31st March of this year charged with exceeding his authority, falsification of evidence, persecution of a person for political reasons and illegal detention. Two other individuals, who are currently at large, senior police officer Gela Naroushvili and Otar Movseniani, a private citizen, were charged along with him in absentia.

The charges laid against the three men concern the case of Sergo Chachibaia, an activist with the Georgian Dream Coalition – the current ruling party in Georgia – who was illegally imprisoned for four and a half years on trumped up charges. Maisuradze and other persons involved are believed to have slashed a policeman’s jacket and the seat of a police car to make it appear that Chachibaia had resisted arrest. These actions also took place while Tengiz Gunava was chief of Zugdidi Police, and part of a larger pattern of setting people up.

What human rights groups think of these officials being indicted and sentenced? Alexander Tskitishvili, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center, said in an interview (Jan 2013):

“For many years, our organization, in addition to other local and international organizations, has requested the punishment of those senior officials, who encouraged political persecution, torture, and inhumane treatment, among other things, in Georgia. Reports of the US State Department, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg and other organizations express similar concerns. The new government is actually implementing the long-asked-for recommendations of human rights organizations by investigating these cases. Naturally, we still keep our position and believe that these cases must be investigated and perpetrators must be punished. So far, the detentions of former senior governmental officials continue transparently. The practice of previous government is not entirely uncovered yet, as they conducted investigations under “top secret” status, and the society received information that was processed by the MIA. Of course, there is the risk that government might be tempted to take political revenge on previous government officials. So, nongovernmental organizations are observing this process with double attention. I think, sometimes, the prosecutor’s office hurries to arrest government officials. In separate cases, the investigation process has not yet reached half way, when people are interrogated as witnesses, but they nonetheless get arrested on the same day. When a person cooperates with the investigation, arrives at the interrogation, and is not going to run away, there is no need to put him in prison.”

But despite all his crimes, friends and associations, Tengiz Gunava will win the local election. What is more, official media sites funded by external donors, such as Civil Georgia and various NGO news sites, will work hard to ensure the people are not reminded who he is and who is part of his support network.

So let’s try to understand the reasons for this apparent dilemma.

To be continued.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.