Mestia: Questions Remain After Incidents Involving Opposition Activists
A number of incidents that involved outspoken government critics in Mestia this spring and summer have stifled opposition voices in Svaneti during a period of intense government investments into the region’s tourism potential. Five months after opposition party candidates were threatened by local officials and paramilitary forces, nobody has been held accountable for the incident. However, three separate witnesses and outspoken critics of the incident have themselves been arrested or intimidated.
In the evening of May 3, 2010 (one month before local elections were held), a number of high-level local government representatives, including the Governor of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, Zaza Gorozia, and dozens of armed men and vehicles from law enforcement bodies surrounded and occupied Mestia’s local administration building.
Several opposition candidates were taken to the administration building and pressured to sign statements withdrawing their candidacy from the upcoming elections. The incident was recorded on amateur video. Governor Gorozia was compelled to take a temporary leave of absence by a Government inter-agency election task force, but has since resumed his post. Meanwhile, there have been no charges brought against any official involved in the incident.
The May 3 events received fairly wide media coverage thanks to three local activists, who are also members of opposition parties, although the incident was not covered by two national TV channels (Rustavi 2 and Imedi) One of activists, Neli Naveriani, was elected in May to the Mestia City Council as a member of the opposition party Alliance for Georgia. Naveriani is known for being outspoken on many issues, including pushing for information on local budget spending and deriding the pre-election intimidation of May 3. In July, she was arrestedalong with three of her relatives on charges of extortion.
Footage aired on Rustavi 2 and Imedi television channels (both stations are generally seen to be pro-government) supposedly provided evidence to confirm the accusations. However, the footage did not in fact provide conclusive evidence of threats or harassment, which is necessary in order to substantiate an accusation of extortion. In reaction to pressure from civil society, on July 14 Ministry of Interior spokesperson Shota Utiashvili promised to provide unlimited access to the evidence of the case, but no further information has been provided despite several requests from the NGO sector, including TI Georgia.
The procedures and terms under which the Ministry of Interior conducted the investigation surprised observers: the special operation to arrest Naveriani and her relatives was carried out just five days after a representative of a Canadian investor addressed local police with a claim of extortion. In this short period, the ministry apparently managed to obtain conclusive evidence of the investor’s claims (including, according to the Ministry of Interior, from wiretaps and video footage), and to plan and carry out the special operation.
A second outspoken critic of the May 3 events, Aleksandre Kherghiani of the Labor Party, also played a prominent role on television, speaking openly against the pre-election intimidation. In August, following a dispute with the mayor about an accidental fire in Khergiani’s neighborhood, Khergiani’s son allegedly slapped the local mayor in the face. Several days after the accident, Khergiani says he was approached by locals with close ties to the government, informing him that a criminal case on the incident had been opened and offering him a deal in which he would take the prison sentence of his son. The situation received significant attention from the Labor Party and NGO sector but it appears to have died away after the publicity.
Kakha Zhorzholiani, a third opposition activist with the Alliance for Georgia, gave many interviews to print media about the events of May 3. In late July, Zhorzholiani’s brother was involved in a minor car accident on the main square of Mestia, just outside his home. A fist fight with the driver of the second car ensued, and the other driver was taken to the hospital and treated for injuries. No one was detained on the spot although the police were present.Two weeks later, Zhorzholiani’s brother was arrested on charges of causing physical harm to the driver. Several policemen and a number of local residents witnessed the accident but nobody was taken in for questioning. The driver himself has not come forward with an accusation. Zhorzholiani’s brother claims the driver pulled out a knife and that he acted in self-defense.
Given the lack of independence of Georgia’s judiciary, poor jail conditions and a conviction rate of 99 percent in criminal cases, doubts remain if the accusations against the opposition activists and their family members will be resolved in a fair and transparent manner. According to locals familiar with the situation, the best that families of those arrested can hope for is to quickly resolve their cases through plea bargaining deals.
In summer 2010, the government of Georgia launched an intense campaign to draw tourists to Svaneti, including a visit from President Saakashvili to promote the area and the building of a new road that is expected to significantly reduce travel time. But while the government is decisively driving forward this massive infrastructure project in Mestia, investigations into alleged wrongdoings of officials seem to have stalled.