Release of Vahagn Chakhalyan, an activist from Georgia’s pre-dominantly ethnic Armenian populated region, who was serving prison term for charges related to weapons, armed hooliganism and acts against public order, was condemned by President Saakashvili who described Chakhalyan as “the enemy of the Georgian state”.
Saakashvili said that PM Bidzina Ivanishvili allowed Chakhalyan’s release in order “to please” Russia.
Chakhalyan was released on January 24 as a result of a broad amnesty passed by the Georgian Parliament late last year after serving four and half years of his ten-year prison term.
The amnesty applied to him, like to thousands of other inmates, in various forms – full exemption from punishment was applied to one out of three charges (hooliganism involving gross violation of public order with use of arms) for which Chakhalyan was convicted and reduction of prison term by one-fourth was applied to his two other charges (one related to illegal keeping of arms and another one to several counts of organizing group’s actions to disrupt public order and disobedience to officials’ orders).
2,910 inmates have been released as of January 24 as a result of the amnesty and the process is still ongoing, according to the ministry in charge of the penitentiary system.
Chakhalyan, who was with one of the Akhalkalaki-based groups which staged several protest rallies in 2005 against withdrawal of the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki and which was calling for an autonomy for the Javakheti region, was arrested in July, 2008 and initially charged with illegal keeping of weapons; later more charges were added involving hooliganism, acts against public order and resisting officials for incidents dating back for 2005 and 2006 including the one when protesters stormed court chamber and a building of the Tbilisi State University’s local branch in Akhalkalaki. His supporters condemned Chakhalyan’s arrest and consequent conviction as politically motivated.
After the release from jail on January 24 Chakhalyan was received by the Head of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia, Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanyan.
“The leader of the Diocese in his speech appreciated the fair and humane actions of the new government,” Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia said in a statement; it also said that Catholicos Karekin II of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church spoke via phone with Chakhalyan and blessed him. After the release Chakhalyan was also received by Armenian ambassador in Tbilisi Hovhannes Manoukian.
Asked about Chakhalyan’s release PM Bidzina Ivanishvili told Georgian journalists in Davos on January 25 that during his visit to Armenia last week the head of the Armenian Church raised the issue before him but he responded that it was not up to the Georgian PM to decide whether to release someone from jail or not. He also said that prison system minister Sozar Subari, who accompanied PM on his visit to Yerevan, gave response on this issue raised during the meeting in Armenia.
“There will no longer be a vertical in Georgia under which one man was deciding everything,” PM Ivanishvili said.
In a televised address on January 25 President Saakashvili said that Chakhalyan’s release was fraught with very negative consequences for the Georgian state.
“As it turned out this person has been released upon the request from Armenian Catholicos Karekin II to the Georgian PM,” Saakashvili said.
“I’ve heard Georgian PM’s explanations over this issue and I deem them completely unsatisfactory. The Georgian Prime Minister cannot shun away from responsibility for his unilateral decision and this is a very heavy responsibility before Georgia’s national security,” Saakashvili said.
He said that by allowing his release PM Ivanishvili “committed a grave misconduct.”
“Chakhalyan – I do not want to stress on his ethnic origins because it does not matter, we have many Armenians who have been defending Georgia’s independence with arms in their hands… – is a representative of not Armenia, it was not in Armenia’s interest to see him freed six years before [expiration of his prison term], this person is a direct resident, representative of the Russian special services in Georgia. He has been working for GRU [Russian military intelligence] for years,” Saakashvili said.
He said that Chakhalyan, who “demands separation of the Georgian state”, was “a criminal of same scale as Vladislav Ardzinba”, the late Abkhaz leader, who led the breakaway region’s separation from Georgia in early 1990s.
“The Prime Minister should not try to shift blame to anyone else – it was his decision, which was not dictated by Georgia’s national interests and let his political admirers pardon me but I assume that it was dictated with desire to please a specific foreign force. He should remember that he is not a representative of a foreign force, but the Prime Minister of Georgia and he should be acting in line with Georgia’s interests,” Saakashvili said.
“A very grave fact took place and I want to address our compatriots in Javakheti. We should keep calm and not to yield to provocations. I know why Russia wanted release of Chakhalyan; they want it because, as you know a new railway is being built in Javakheti [referring to Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway project], which will connect Georgia with Europe. Russia closed our [route] to Europe via Abkhazia [referring to Georgia-Russia railway via breakaway Abkhazia] and Russia wanted Abkhaz conflict for this reason too… Now we are building new railway which will be opened this year and which will connect us to Europe and if there are unrests in Javakheti, of course it will be a problem for this railway too… I hope and I am sure that they won’t be able to do that, because local society in Javakheti will also not allow it happen – our compatriots, including ethnic Armenians saw very well advantage of living in Georgia and what does the Georgian development mean,” Saakashvili said.
“I am sure that they [locals in Javakheti] will not yield to [provocations] against our statehood by Russian agents even if these [agents] are acting together with the group which came into Georgian government temporarily,” Saakashvili added.
UNM secretary general Vano Merabishvili, who was the interior minister when Chakhalyan was arrested, also condemned Chakhalyan’s release and described him as “a symbol of struggle against the Georgian statehood”, “inspirer of separatism in Javakheti”, “emissary of Russian military intelligence” and “major enemy of the Georgian statehood in Javakheti”.
Sozar Subari, the minister in charge of penitentiary said on January 25, that Chakhalyan was released in accordance to amnesty act passed by the Parliament last month and “if this person is really GRU agent, why did not they [the previous authorities] charge him for it?”