Theater of Cruelty

Istanbul attacks tear up Norwegian insanity

The terrorist attack on Istanbul airport this summer brought up an old story of an authoritarian regime and secret training camps for Islamist militants – as well as a failed Norwegian aid project.


One of the places that narrow the summer of terror 2016 was at the Atatürk airport in Istanbul the 28. June. Three people attack with machine gun and suicide bombs. 45 people were killed.

In the United States, Congressman Michael McCaul went out a few days later, claiming, based on US intelligence sources, that the main suspect was Akhmed Chataev, a traveling Chechen warrior who had for some time had political asylum in Austria.

Russia has for a decade defined Chataev as a terrorist for his participation in the war in the North Caucasus, but until recently he was seen as a victim of Russian repression until recently. When Ukraine arrested "the unarmed terrorist" in 2010, Amnesty objected to being extradited because of the danger of torture.

Contradictions. Immediately after the attack at Istanbul airport, many Western media questioned why human rights organizations had regarded Chataev as a victim of political persecution. The same angle had the media here in Georgia, which was the last place he was imprisoned, after being caught with grenades in a forest on the border with Russia in the autumn of 2012. Former Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili wrote on his Facebook page that the new government considered him a political prisoner. He thus made a connection to the mass amnesty declared by the new government after voters dismissed him in 2012 by almost two-thirds majority.

Aleksandre Tskitishvili of the Human Rights Center (HRC) in Tbilisi believes Chataev was not guilty of what he was arrested for – illegal possession of explosives – and believes it was right for Tbilisi city court to release him. It was one of HRC's lawyers who defended him in the case.

But how did Chataev go to jail in Georgia? For Norway, this can prove to be an unpleasant question if the case is ever resolved. Chataev was arrested after a shooting episode on the Georgia-Russia border in August 2012. The truth about the shooting episode has still not emerged. The first information from the Saakashvili regime turned out to be full of contradictions, but the new government has not investigated the matter, as they promised.

The official version of the shooting episode was that Georgian security forces responded that a group of Chechen militants crossed the border from Russia to Georgia, and that is how it started. But there were several contradictions in the statements that the Saakashvili regime came up with, and a local investigative journalist, Gela Mtivlisvvili, found that the Chechen militants had not come from Russia, but were on their way into Russia as the shooting started.

Examined the episode. After the change of government, an experienced human rights activist, Utsja Nanuashvili, was elected a new ombudsman, and he immediately began investigating the shootings. He published his findings in a separate report in May 2013 [1]. According to Nanuashvili, the background for the whole was an incredible plan implemented by Saakashvili to train up to 120 Chechen rebels at two military bases near Tbilisi, and freely let them into the Russian North Caucasus. The program was launched in February 2012, and the month after, the first unit of Chechen militants was sent across the border to Russia, according to the report.

Based on interviews with anonymous sources, it is described in detail how Chechens living in Europe were brought in to Georgia, awarded accommodation in Tbilisi, issued a weapons license and driver's license, and trained at the military bases Vaziani and Sjavnabada. Two of the military officers who trained the Islamists are named in the report. There is also the chief minister, Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze, as well as two of his employees.

The Ombudsman believed that the findings prove that the government was behind this – that it was not just individuals within the regime.

When this came up in 2013, Saakashvili denied that his regime had trained "terrorists". Beyond the vague denial, his main message [2] was that it was detrimental to the country's interests to talk about the topic. Today, Saakashvili is located in Ukraine and, like many of its employees, has been wanted in the home country. From his exile, [3] recently Lortkipanidze, who is now a general of police in Odessa where Saakashvili is governor, confirmed that Chataev was working for Georgian intelligence in the time before the Lapankuri border crossing.

Unrest. Bidzina Ivanichvili – the billionaire who had the regime backed by Norway, removed from power – believed that Georgia had become a transit route for North Caucasian militants. The historical lines are complicated, and the Caucasus is a region where loyalty shifts easily and tactics and intrigue abound. During Russia's two wars in Chechnya, Georgian territory was used as a resting place and base for the Chechens – despite the fact that Chechen militants fought on the opposite side (against Georgia) in the Abkhazia war in the early 90s.

The Chechen resistance movement made use of a region of Georgia where there is ethnic Chechen settlement. The valley of Pankisi has continued to be a moment of turmoil in the relationship between Georgia and Russia. Militants have passed a porous border over the mountains, despite an American-backed effort to clean up the lawless conditions in the early 2000s – the Georgia Train and Equip Program.

Suppression and language chauvinism. But Georgia authorities' consideration for the cultural protection of the North Caucasian peoples is selective. You support the Circassians and their work in recognizing the Circassian genocide, and you support the Chechens – but you do not support their own mingles, half a million people with a language that no one else understands; a language they are not allowed to speak on television and in which they are not allowed to teach their children in or publish newspapers or serious literature. Nor can they use their native language in contact with local authorities. Even the most nationalist language policy in European countries, such as France, is nowhere near the degree of chauvinism the Georgian state is pushing against minglers and another peoples group, the Swan, which also has its own language that is incomprehensible to others. The Swan people and the mingles have not been allowed to establish their own written language except for a short period early in the Soviet Union, and there is reason to believe that as Georgia constantly postpones ratification of several European conventions on the protection of cultural minorities, it is related to the fact that they do not want to expose their drastic deviations in this area now that they are trying to enter the EU.

Equally fully, the American think tank Jamestown Foundation organized several seminars in Tbilisi in 2010 to promote the cultural interests of North Caucasian peoples, including the Chechens. Russia has criticized this business because it believes it is an incentive for ethnic and interreligious conflict, according to Reuters.

The role of Norway. Pending our knowledge of the Lapankuri affair, this again raises questions about Norway's cooperation with the Saakashvili regime from beginning to end. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice collaborated to run an office in Tbilisi, where between six and eight Norwegians worked at any one time – some of our best qualified from the judiciary, courts, prison administration and legal profession. Norwegian diplomats were also committed to the success of the reforms and wanted to help Saakashvili. They thought he was a Democratic leader who wanted to make Georgia a modern European democracy. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had no such ambitions.

When Saakashvili lost power in October 2012, there was a coalition that won by almost two-thirds majority on a campaign pledge to "restore justice". That meant correcting all the abuses committed by the authorities over the decade as the Norwegian experts had tried to help develop a fair justice system, and thought it was going the right way. People here did not share that view.

Akhmed Chataev. Interpress News
Akhmed Chataev. Interpress News

Saakashvili was sitting for another year, as a "lame duck" president. The same was done by the Norwegian law experts. One month after the president packed his luggage and escaped the country, the Norwegian experts also packed down their secret archive – which for many years and in contravention of Norwegian law denied me access. No one knows for sure whether the so-called document collection was sifted before it was printed from me was formally recorded, but we know that the Georgian language part of the archive was shredded in full – against the wishes of the staff of the Georgian Ombudsman's office.

But how did Chataev go to jail in Georgia? For Norway, this can prove to be an unpleasant question if the case is ever resolved.

The then head of the office objected to the closure. He felt that the country needed Norwegian guidance during the upcoming court settlement that the new government had promised. They did not, and in the opinion of most observers, the settlement has gone very wrong. Instead of a broad clean-up that could create reconciliation, a few selected peaks from the previous regime have been locked and beaten – partly by raw methods and outside of good legal practice.

Concerns. The 2012 border crossing also has links to the war in Syria. Ahmed Chataev was not the only one of the militants who came alive. The Ombudsman in Georgia writes that a group of seven militants escaped and were allowed to leave Georgia and Turkey to join the war in Syria.

If this proves to be true, Norway's indirect support for the Saakashvili regime was also a support for training foreign warriors in the Syrian civil war – as well as leaving behind a population that felt they were living under a deeply unfair system growing up under the nose of our law experts.




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