Arrest of an opposition member of local council in Mestia in Georgia’s north-western mountainous region of Svaneti and her three relatives, one of them local official, has sparked a backlash from part of local residents – the case which, apart of political aspect, involves broader problem related to land ownership in the region.
Neli Naveriani, a member of Mestia town council from now collapsed opposition Alliance for Georgia and her three relatives - David Japaridze, head of Mestia’s municipal office for culture, tourism and sport affairs; Tariel Japaridze and Shota Japaridze - were arrested on July 7 and charged with extortion of GEL 70,000 from a foreign investor.
According to the Interior Ministry, the group was extorting money from a Georgian citizen acting on behalf of a Canadian investor, who bought 22,000 square meter plot of land in Svaneti to build a hotel in the region, which is one of the tourist destinations in Georgia famous with its medieval-type villages, tower-houses and high mountain peaks.
The plot of land in question was once owned by ancestors of the family, whose four members are now facing extortion charges. According to the police, the suspects were demanding money based on so called “local tradition”, as the land was once owned by their ancestors.
After the collapse of Soviet Union many families in Svaneti, regained and distributed plots of land, confiscated under the Soviet regime, among each other in accordance to how those plots were owned by their ancestors before the Soviet regime. But the problem was that this process was taking place informally, based on verbal agreement between the families and the distribution was not officially registered, meaning that although the land may be de facto owned by a family, but from legal point of view land still belongs to the state. In this particular case the plot of land in question was privatized few years ago by the investor, according to the authorities.
After the arrest the police had to call for helicopters to escort detainees from Mestia to Zugdidi, administrative center of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, as some locals were blocking the roads protesting against the arrest of Naveriani and the three men. At least four local residents and several policemen were injured in a clash.
On July 11 a group of local residents reportedly held a rally in Mestia demanding not only the release of Naveriani and her three relatives, whom they consider innocent, but also to resolve the problem related with privatization of land – the process, which locals say has been suspended more than a year ago.
But President Saakashvili made it clear on July 14 that the authorities had no intention to step back.
“When I come to Mestia and if someone gives me a letter urging for pardoning [of Naveriani and the three men], you should know that there is no need to disturb yourself, as I will return this letter back very coldly,” Saakashvili said while meeting with regional governors in his residence in Tbilisi on July 14.
“Giving a bad answer to an investor amounts to dooming own children for poverty and misfortune,” he said.
Saakashvili said that the authorities managed to provide security in the Svaneti region by rooting out crime bosses there back in 2004, when three crime suspects – a father and his two sons were killed in a heavy-handed police operation.
Referring to that police operation Saakashvili said: “We have blown up a tower from helicopters – I only regret in this operation that this tower was blown up; I do not feel regrets about those bandits.”
He said that crackdown on crime in the region helped to increase flow of tourism in Svaneti.
“But now some people emerged… telling [investor] that this land belonged to their ancestors and ‘if you want to build something here, you should give a share’…. Now they [referring to Naveriani and her relatives] will be instructed in European-level Georgian prisons for many years to come how one should demand shares from a foreign investor,” Saakashvili said.
Tbilisi-based four human rights and advocacy groups, however, suggested in their joint statement on July 10 that Naveriani’s arrest “might be linked to her political activities.” Naveriani acted as a whistleblower when ahead of local elections several opposition candidates came under pressure from local senior officials.
Transparency International Georgia, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and Human Rights Center cast doubt over the official version of the case and indicated that Naveriani and her three relatives could have been provoked by investor’s representative to take money, which was used by the police as a pretext to arrest them.
Shota Utiashvili, head of the interior ministry’s information and analytical department, however, has strongly denied such suggestions and said that the police had not only video, but also phone records and other evidence to support case against Naveriani and her three relatives.
Human rights and advocacy groups said that they would keep monitoring the case and called on the international organizations to also keep a close eye on the matter.