A report by two experts, recruited by Council of Europe (CoE) Human Rights Commissioner, highlights “serious shortcomings” in the process of clarifying the fate of persons, missing since the August, 2008 war, said Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg, who released the report on September 29.
Two experts - an officer from the Australian Federal Police and another from the French National Police, both with experience of investigating serious crimes and crimes of war – were sent to Georgia by the Commissioner in March to monitor how the cases of missing persons were investigated in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali.
The report details several cases, including the one of three ethnic Ossetians, who disappeared in October, 2008; a separate case of one ethnic Ossetian, who was captured by the Georgian side during the hostilities in August and also the cases of two Georgian soldiers, who were captured by the South Ossetian side, subjected to ill-treatment and whose mortal remains later returned to the Georgian side.
Case of Three Ossetians
The case of three young ethnic Ossetians - Alan Khachirov, Alan Khugaev and Soltan Pliev, with one of them, Khachirov, a minor who had not reach the age of 16 at the time of disappearance on October 13, 2008 – was one of the key issues raised by Tskhinvali. The latter has been conditioning its participation in regular incident prevention meetings with the Georgian side to address security concerns on the ground to the resolution of this case.
The three young men went missing after coming across the Georgian-controlled territory. In spring, 2009 a video footage was released via internet by unidentified source, apparently shot by a mobile phone, showing these three men being shouted at and harassed by Georgian-speaking men, which prompted Tskhinvali to accuse the Georgian law enforcement agencies of having link to disappearance of the three men. Tbilisi has been strongly denying any involvement.
Information obtained by the two experts, however, indicates that the three men were detained and taken into custody by the Georgian law enforcement officers. The claim, among other things, is based on OSCE’s patrol report (at the time monitors from the organization were still on the ground, patrolling areas adjacent to the breakaway South Ossetia’s administrative border) dated with October 14. Citing information from the Georgian police, the OSCE patrol’s report says that three armed South Ossetian males were taken into custody.
“The time, location and the reference to the three persons match the elements relating to the disappearance of Khachirov, Khugaev and Pliev,” the report by two experts reads.
“What exactly happened to Khachirov, Khugaev and Pliev after they were taken into custody is unclear… Regrettably, the experts have found no convincing information in support of the hypothesis that the three young persons are alive,” it says.
The report criticizes the way how the case was investigated by the Georgian law enforcement agencies, saying “there was little substantive progress toward officially clarifying the fate of the three missing persons.”
“The experts were particularly struck by the fact that, although there had been serious allegations implicating the involvement of Georgian law enforcement officials in the disappearance of Khachirov, Khugaev, and Pliev, there was hardly any attempt to safeguard the independence of the investigation,” according to the report.
Although it notes that the Georgian authorities took some significant steps and followed the advice of the experts in the process of investigation, some “important recommendations made by the experts were not accepted”; it says that “no serious attempt was made” to identify the person who first posted a video footage of three detained men on the Georgian video-sharing website Myvideo.ge in March or April 2009.
The Georgian Interior Ministry declined to comment on the report on September 29, citing that it was still in process of studying its findings. Shota Utiashvili, head of information and analytical department at the Interior Ministry, told Civil.ge that the investigation into the case of three persons was still ongoing.
The report also criticizes authorities in Tskhinvali for contributing “little” to the clarification of the fate of the three persons. It also says that it was not possible to obtain from the Russian authorities call records from the three men’s mobile phones, which were believed to be Russian registered.
Another case also involving an ethnic Ossetian involves disappearance of Radik Ikaev, who, according to the report was captured by Georgian military during the August, 2008 hostilities in the Znauri District. The report says that he was last seen alive on August 22, 2008 and was in Georgian custody at the time. No other information is available on that case.
The two experts, recruited by the CoE Human Rights Commissioner, were asked by the Georgian side to look into the cases of several Georgian soldiers.
According to the report two Georgian soldiers, Giorgi Antsukhelidze and Kakha Khubuluri, were detained during the August hostilities, subjected to ill-treatment while in captivity and later their mortal remains were handed over to the Georgian side.
According to the report after showing video evidence of soldiers’ ill-treatment to the officials in Tskhinvali, they acknowledged that it “raised issues of a very serious nature”, but declined to further probe into the matter. Officials in Tskhinvali cited that the case did not fall within the scope of experts’ mandate, as they were entitled to monitor only the investigation related to missing persons.
“The experts must therefore report with considerable regret that this position of the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali prevented them from addressing the cases concerned, and can only deduce that there has not been any attempt to ensure accountability of the persons who perpetrated these abhorrent violent acts,” the report reads.
In a separate case of missing Georgian soldiers, the two experts found out, that Giorgi Romelashvili, Zaza Birtvelashvili and Otar Sukhitashvili, the crew members of Georgian battle tank T-72, died when their tank was ambushed and destroyed in Tskhinvali on August 8.