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Release of Georgian Prisoner Sparks Protest in Sokhumi
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 4 Jan.'18 / 23:00

Pardoning and the subsequent release of Giorgi Lukava from Abkhazia’s Dranda prison has stirred public protest in the region, with members of the Sokhumi legislature convening an emergency session yesterday amid heavy opposition criticism.

51-year-old Lukava, native of Abkhazia’s easternmost Gali district, was arrested by Sokhumi authorities in 2012, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 (the penalty was reduced to 16 years in accordance with the region’s law on prison terms).

Sokhumi authorities claimed Giorgi Lukava committed a number of offences in 1994, including murder and kidnapping of Abkhaz officials, when he was allegedly a member of the Forest Brothers, an armed group consisting of residents of the predominantly ethnic Georgian-populated Gali district (the group ceased to exist in 2004). Lukava, however, denies the accusations.

That Lukava was freed from custody was first announced by the State Security Service of Georgia, which said in its brief statement on December 25 that the prisoner was released “as a result of months-long negotiations,” and that “the decision of the de facto [Abkhaz] authorities” was “a positive step” that would add “positive dynamics” to the Gali Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings.

Lukava’s release was, however, strongly condemned by opposition groups in Sokhumi, with Amtsakhara, Kyarazaa and Ainar parties slamming Raul Khajimba, the Moscow-backed leader of the region, for pardoning “the terrorist,” and calling the decision “a betrayal” and “a blasphemy” over the memory of those “who died for freedom of Abkhazia.”

The Abkhaz security service commented on the “discussion” on December 29, saying Lukava’s release was part of a tripartite prisoner exchange process, which was initiated “in response to the request of the authorities of the Republic of South Ossetia,” and “the active phase of which, took place in March 2016.”The security service clarified that Lukava “was in the list” as well, but noted that “his transfer at that time did not happen for a number of reasons.” “Subsequently, when these reasons expired, Lukava was handed over to the Georgian authorities,” reads the statement.

The response failed to address the opposition concerns, with the main opposition Amtsakhara party (a political movement uniting veterans of the 1992-93 war which supported ex-Abkhaz leader Alexander Ankvab) calling a political council meeting on January 2, and also announcing a rally in front of the region’s “presidential administration” on January 3.

The announcement prompted the region’s leader Raul Khajimba to issue his clarifications on the matter. The “president’s” press office stressed in its late-night statement on January 3 that Lukava was transferred to Tbilisi “as part of the prison exchange process initiated by the authorities of the Republic of South Ossetia,” and called on the public to “demonstrate patience and refrain from following provocative appeals.”

Khajimba reiterated that Lukava was “in the list of those who were to be exchanged, but his transfer was stopped at that moment.” He then noted that Giorgi Lukava and Giorgi Giunashvili (an ethnic Georgian who was serving a 20-year prison term in Tskhinvali) were released “in exchange for Roland Zhiba, who was hiding in Georgia and who is suspected in the murder of B. Kvitsinia (Sokhumi authorities had previously claimed Zhiba was arrested on May 5, 2017).”

The Amtsakhara party, which held a political council meeting early on January 3, said in its statement after the meeting that Khajimba’s decision was “a betrayal of the country’s national interests,” and that the political party still had questions over Lukava’s release. The party called on the “parliament of Abkhazia” to gather for an emergency session and issue its “political and legal assessment of Khajimba’s decision.”

Questions over Lukava’s release were also voiced at an outdoor rally in front of the “presidential administration,” with several hundred protesters accusing the authorities of making a “a behind-the-scenes” decision, and demanding official explanations from the authorities.

Later on January 3, the protesters moved to the region’s “parliament,” which convened for an emergency session, and established a seven-member commission for investigating the details of Lukava’s release.

The commission held its first meeting immediately after its establishment, and heard several representatives of the region’s “ministries,” “the presidential administration,” “the pardon commission” and others, but decided that it needed additional time for delivering its final opinion on the legality of Giorgi Lukava’s pardoning.

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