Brussels and Washington have condemned the heavy prison sentence slapped on a Georgian citizen by the authorities in the Russia-controlled Georgian region of South Ossetia on Friday (5 February).
Zaza Gakhaladze was sentenced to 12 and a half years of prison, after being detained on charges he denies, of attempting the murder of a law enforcement officer and illegally crossing the “border” in the summer last year. According to the Georgian authorities, he was detained by the Russian troops on Tbilisi-controlled territory.
Georgia was deprived of 20% of its territory – Abkhazia and South Ossetia — following a five-day war with Russia in August 2008. The territories, qualified by experts as “frozen conflict”, are de facto controlled by Russia, as the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled last month.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised as independent states only by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria.
The Russian troops detained Gakheladze, who suffered a gunshot wound in the process, near the administrative boundary of South Ossetia on 11 July last year, accusing him of repeatedly shooting at them during an attempt of illegally crossing the border.
Gakhaladze “was shot and illegally detained by Russian occupation forces near the boundary line with Tskhinvali on Tbilisi-controlled territory”, the Georgia authorities state in an official communique.
Gakheladze’s wife said her husband was out foraging for mushrooms with fellow villagers on that day.
The area is heavily militarised. Last year Russia was reported to have between 9,000 and 10,000 soldiers on both breakaway territories, which in South Ossetia amounts to one soldier for every eight residents.
The EU has an unarmed civilian monitoring mission, dubbed EUMM, deployed since September 2008, following the EU-mediated Six Point Agreement that ended the August war. However, the scope of their monitoring is very limited.
The EU called Gakhaladze’s jailing “illegal detention” and repeated calls for his immediate release on Friday.
“It raises a lot of concern,” the head of the EU delegation to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, said after his meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia on Saturday (6 February).
The diplomat said “this verdict, the follow-up to the illegal detention, is clearly a bad signal, something we take very seriously.”
“And we will be continuously following up on this issue,” he added.
Washington also condemned the actions of the self-proclaimed South Ossetian authorities.
The US embassy said in a statement on Friday that the sentencing is “yet another example of Russia’s attempts to illegally control and exploit the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
“Russian actions threaten the lives, human rights, culture, and personal freedoms of people living in and near these Georgian territories, and deny them the ability to exercise rights and access opportunities that should be available to all Georgian citizens,” the statement read.
Russia drew criticism in spring when so-called “borderisation” continued along the dividing line even as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]