Commentary: Is Georgian who died in South-Ossetian custody saboteur or victim?
Archil Tatunashvili, 35, died in a hospital in South Ossetia on 22 February 2018, after being detained by the local security services on suspicion of participating in “the genocide of South Ossetians” during the 2008 war and planning an act of sabotage on the republic’s territory ahead of the Russian presidential election.
As discussions in and between the two societies about the incident heat up, Murat Gukemukhov of Ekho Kavkaza (a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project covering news in the South Caucasus) is pitching in with a point-by-point analysis of the South-Ossetian KGB’s version of the events.
KGB claims Tatunashvili was detained for investigative purposes after a search of him had yielded “fake South-Ossetian identification documents”.
Lame, says Gukemukhov. A resident of Kanchaveti, a Georgian village located 7 to 8 kilometers away from South Ossetia’s city of Leningor [Georgian name for the city is Akhalgori – JAMnews], Tatunashvili had travelled there almost daily for two years to sell vegetables. Which is something he wouldn’t have been able to do without a special entry pass issued by the KGB itself.
“Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a person who’s committed war crimes… crossing the border every day just like that, without fearing exposure,” the journalist says.
KGB says they found on Tatunashvili a visit card introducing him as a Georgian army officer and present this as evidence of his participation in the 2008 war.
Ekho Kavkaza’s Gukemukhov shoots this one down as well. While Tatunasvili had indeed served in the Georgian military he couldn’t have participated in the 2008 hostilities because he was on a mission in Iraq at the time, he says.
He cites International Crisis Group analyst Olesya Vartanyan as having told him she had met members of Georgia’s Iraqi battalion in 2008, shortly after they’d been redeployed to Georgia, by which time the active hostilities were already over.
A press-release by the KGB reads:
“The detainee put up resistance while being transferred to the detention facility. He snatched a gun from a guard’s holster, and the KGB agents had to use physical force to disarm him… In the process, the detainee lost his balance and fell down the stairs.”
Gukemukhov is unconvinced. “Are they saying they were transferring a dangerous saboteur without having put handcuffs on him first? This is interesting… And then he fell down the stairs? Really?”
“True, there is no immediate evidence to prove the information in the press-release wrong, but too many times we have seen [law enforcers] offer such false explanations to justify custodial beatings,” says Gukemukhov. “Only an independent expertise can dispel the doubts about Tatunashvili’s death. If the [KGB] does not lie, then there is no reason why they should be refusing to hand over his body to his family in Georgia.”
Finally, the journalist addresses the KGB’s genocide accusation. He quotes legal expert of the “Memorial” human rights group Kiril Koroteyev: “It’s unreal and impossible to accuse anyone of genocide based only on the fact of their having served in the army of one of the sides in conflict.”
Now, says Gukemukhov, if the KGB does not want to be accused of having killed an innocent person and of speculating on the Ossetian people’s tragedy, they are going to need to come up with some proof of his guilt.
So far, he says, the KGB has come up with a new press release.
“[The search] found on him lists featuring the personal data of over 30 militaries from four Georgian army units, the telephone numbers of their commanders and a military training centre,” it reads. “He himself features in them as a member of a […] sabotage group. The documents are proof he was planning provocations in South Ossetia.”
Gekemukhov is ironic. “A saboteur goes on a mission carrying on him a whole package of evidence exposing himself and his team members – I wonder if anything like this has ever happened anywhere? It must be the first ever such case.”