Three young residents of Pankisi gorge were questioned on January 16 due to their alleged ties with members of the group of Ahmed Chatayev who fought against the Georgian security forces on November 21-22 in Tbilisi, the Georgian State Security Service (SSS) confirmed to Civil.ge on January 17.
According to their family members, the reason for the questioning is the acquaintance of the three young men with the suspects and photos where they are seen together.
Father of one of the questioned individuals and a member of the Pankisi Council of Elders, Jaraph Khangoshvili maintains that his son’s acquaintance with the terrorism suspects “does not prove anything,” except the fact that Pankisi gorge residents are “hospitable people.” The son, Yusuph Khangoshvili, is seen together with the suspects and Temirlan Machalikashvili in a video made in a shop in Tbilisi on 11 November.
However, the SSS blurred the face of Yusuph Khangoshvili when on January 4 it released this video footage to prove the suspects’ ties with Temirlan Machalikashvili, who had been critically wounded during the security forces operation in Pankisi on December 26.
The other two individuals questioned by the SSS on January 16 are Jibrail Kushanashvili and the son of Ramaz (Khizir) Margoshvili - one of the individuals detained by security forces on December 26. The mother of the former, Hedi Kushanashvili told journalists that her son is seen in a photo together with a terrorism suspect as a result of only a single one-day meeting.
Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria visited Pankisi on January 16 and met with family members of Temirlan Machalikashvili and the four individuals detained on December 26. Lomjaria expressed readiness to mediate between the authorities and Pankisi gorge residents.
Alleged prior visits of Chatayev’s group members to Georgia
Some residents of Pankisi gorge say that Chatayev’s group members had visited Georgia long before the November 21-22 operation and that at the time ties with them were not considered to be connection to terrorists.
One of them, Meqa Khangoshvili told journalists that Chatayev’s group members "had been entering Georgia for two years, not illegally but legally.” Khangoshvili says they visited Pankisi gorge many times, “freely moved in any part of Georgia,” and could not be identified as terrorists by the locals.
According to Malkhaz Machalikashvili, Temirlan Machalikashvili’s father, the suspects “came up to the [Pankisi] gorge and freely moved in Tbilisi.” Machalikashvili also says the suspects frequented Georgia during the last two years, adding that “at least a half if not the whole gorge knew they came from Russia for business purposes or as tourists. Everyone knew them.”