The affair surrounding the Georgian doctor is becoming increasingly twisted
Georgian trauma doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili has been in Tskhinvali detention center for more than 10 days. Russian servicemen detained him in the conflict zone when he tried to move to the territory they controlled. The Ossetian side accused him of illegally crossing the so-called state border, which is an administrative offense.
However, as JAMnews learned from a source in the Tskhinvali government, it is possible that a criminal case will be instituted against Gaprindashvili: Tskhinvali accuses him of participating in the 2008 war.
The Akhalgori court has already sentenced Vazha Gaprindashvili to two months pre-trial detention. Representatives of the Red Cross, who visited the doctor in the Tskhinvali detention center, handed over a letter he wrote to his family.
In his letter, the doctor informed his family that he is feeling well. Gaprindashvili’s wife, Tamila Lapanashvili, in an interview with Radio Liberty, said that the letter was written on a Red Cross letterhead.
It is known that during the interrogation, Vazha Gaprindashvili pleaded not guilty, saying that he did not violate the border, since he was in Georgia, in its occupied territory.
The Ossetian side considers Gaprindashvili a provocateur and is not in a hurry to free him.
The meeting on November 19 in Tskhinvali, which was attended by senior European diplomats – co-chairs of the Geneva talks, did not help. It ended without concrete results.
In Tbilisi, doctors conducted several solidarity actions with Vazha Gaprindashvili. Facebook users also support the doctor by using a Freedom for Doctor Vazha overlay on their avatars. On t-shirts with the same inscription, well-known television journalists appear before the audience in their programs.
Despite the wide coverage, the story of the detention of a Georgian doctor is becoming increasingly strange.
European diplomats meet in Tskhinvali
Yesterday in Tskhinvali, a meeting was held between the co-chairs of the Geneva international discussions and representatives of local authorities.
Foreign diplomats left the Tskhinvali region without meeting with Georgian journalists, waiting to gather at a checkpoint near the village of Ergneti.
The representative of the European Union, one of the co-chairs of the Geneva international discussions, Toivo Klaar, in an interview with an RFE/RL correspondent said:
“Of course, it will be great if the situation is resolved and if doctor Gaprindashvili will be freed as soon as possible. I don’t think that his prolonged imprisonment is in anyone’s interests.”
After the meeting in Tskhinvali, Murat Dzhioev, the representative of the de facto president of South Ossetia in post-conflict issues, gave a more specific comment to journalists:
“The decision regarding Gaprindashvili will be made in accordance with the laws of South Ossetia. So far, he has been sentenced to two months in prison, and then the issue will be decided in court.”
The de facto president of South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov also participated in the meeting. According to him, Vazha Gaprindashvili is a provocateur driven by the Tbilisi authorities.
“This is part of the general policy pursued by Georgia in relation to South Ossetia. But the time has come for Georgia to understand that South Ossetia is an independent state and continue its activities taking into account this factor,” Bibilov said.
Bibilov and Dzhioev emphasized that Gaprindashvili does not recognize the “border” and therefore denies the fact of its violation.
How Vazha Gaprindashvili ended up in a Tskhinvali prison
Vazha Gaprindashvili was detained by Russian troops in the South Ossetian conflict zone near the village of Orchosani.
A de facto statement by the South Ossetian State Security Committee on November 19 said that “the investigation established that on the morning of November 9, 2019, Vazha Gaprindashvili specially arrived from Tbilisi to the border of South Ossetia to the population of Sakorintlo, where he illegally crossed the border of South Ossetia.”
Little is known about the circumstances of the detention of Gaprindashvili.
He was allowed to make a phone call: Gaprindashvili contacted his wife at about 15.30 and said that Russian troops were transporting him to Tskhinvali. It is also known that no one was waiting for Vazha Gaprindashvili at the so-called border. Locals generally accompany those coming in from the other side.
“Without a host, i.e. the one to whom you are going to visit, as a rule, no one risks going over to the other side. It’s very strange that Gaprindashvili was alone,” said Tamar Mearakishvili, a civil activist, resident of Akhalgori.
In a conversation with JAMnews, the doctor’s wife, Tamila Lapanashvili, said she had no idea that Vazha Gaprindashvili was in the conflict zone.
Why did the doctor enter the conflict zone?
The only account available today is that Gaprindashvili was heading to Akhalgori for a patient – possibly to see Tamar Gigauri, a local resident who a few weeks ago fell into a deep well and received serious injuries. Gigauri became known to the public after the Ossetian and Russian border guards prevented the family from moving Gigauri to Tbilisi to continue treatment.
Tamila Lapanashvili recalls that a few days before the arrest in the conflict zone, there was talk at home about Gigauri. According to her, her husband, as a doctor, felt very sorry for the woman in need of quality medical care.
“We learned about Tamar Gigauri on TV. And then he suggested that she might need an operation, as it looks like she has a lot of fractures. Nothing more. He did not say that he was going to go to the conflict zone,” Lapanashvili said.
However, as Tskhinvali journalists told RFE/RL, during interrogation Vazha Gaprindashvili himself denied that he had come to provide assistance to Gigauri.
This is also denied by Tamar Gigauri. Akhalgori activist Tamar Mearakishvili visited her a few days ago. Gigauri said she had not been in contact with the Tbilisi doctor.
“Tamar Gigauri personally asked me, as far as possible, to report this as widely as possible,” Tamar Mearakishvili told JAMnews.
When asked whether the Akhalgori authorities could put pressure on Tamar Gigauri and force her to deny her connection with Vazha Gaprindashvili, Mearakishvili said:
“Theoretically they could, but Tamar Gigauri was not faking it and was genuinely surprised by the story of Gaprindashvili. In my opinion there was no pressure.”
Most of the information about Gaprindashvili is coming out of Tskhinvali.
On November 19, the de facto state security committee of South Ossetia issued a statement stating that Vazha Gaprindashvili was involved in the August 2008 war.
“Vazha Gaprindashvili was the captain of the military medical service of the Armed Forces of Georgia, and as a military doctor he actively participated in the events of August 2008,” the South Ossetian KGB said.
However, this information is categorically denied by family members of the doctor and his colleagues. They claim that during the days of the August war, Vazha Gaprindashvili was on duty at the Gudushauri clinic and assisted the wounded who were admitted to the hospital.
Orthopedic surgeon Levan Nachkebia, who worked near Gaprindashvili in those days, recalls that he helped everyone, and did not pay attention to the ethnic origin of his patients.
“As evidence that the doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili worked in the hospital during the war in August 2008, I will cite a well-known fact: we helped Russian pilots Vyacheslav Malkov and Igor Zinoviev, whose plane was shot down by Georgian forces after the bombing of Georgian cities. After receiving the treatment, the Russian pilots were transferred to Russia through the Red Cross and the Swiss Embassy,” orthopedic surgeon Levan Nachkebia told RFE/RL.
The purpose of disseminating information about Gaprindashvili’s participation in the war is: Tskhinvali is trying to give legs to the accusation made against him and create a negative background, against which the message is clear – people who participated in the 2008 war on the side of Tbilisi should not count on any leniency from Tskhinvali.
“It seems that the accusation article will be requalified and criminal proceedings will be instituted against Gaprindashvili. He acts defiantly – he says that he deliberately moved to South Ossetia and knew what he was doing,” a Tskhinvali government source told JAMnews.
Why did Tskhinvali decide to punish Gaprindashvili with particular severity?
Thousands of people are detained annually in South Ossetia on similar charges. As a rule, none of them remain behind bars for a long time – they pay a fine and return to the territory controlled by the Georgian side.
Vazha Gaprindashvili seems to be an exception. Obviously, this is due to the evidence that he gives to Tskhinvali law enforcement officers. According to a JAMnews source close to the Tskhinvali authorities, the detainee is behaving ‘defiantly.’
“He says such things that even if you wanted to let him go, you wouldn’t be able to. Who needs this [what’s happening], why should he be kept in prison? He specifically goes on with his provocations, declares that he is in his country – Georgia, and there are no borders. After such statements, who would let him go?!” says the JAMnews source.
What does Tbilisi intend to do?
The Georgian authorities claim that Georgian government agencies and international organizations are working to release Gaprindashvili from the Tskhinvali prison. Informal connections are also involved.
Presumably, it was with the use of informal ties that Tbilisi tried to pull Vazha Gaprindashvili out in the first days of his detention, and therefore hid the fact of his arrest. But obviously – it didn’t work out.
A few days later, Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Ketevan Tsikhelashvili stated that Gaprindavshili would be released within a few days. However, she did not specify what caused her such confidence.
According to the former head of this department Paata Zakareishvili, it was a mistake to make such a statement:
“Tsikhelashvili’s statement makes the matter even more complicated. If she knows something, then, moreover, she must be silent. Because of this statement, Gaprindashvili’s stay behind bars may be delayed. They interpret such statements in their own way: how can we do this so that it does not seem that we are fulfilling the demands of Tbilisi?!”
On June 20, Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani met with returning European diplomats from Tskhinvali. He appealed to the co-chairs of the Geneva discussions to use every opportunity to stop provocations on the line of occupation, as well as for the speedy release of Vazha Gaprindashvili.