While the media is entirely preoccupied with Georgian Dream’s Russian-inspired draft law on “foreign agents”, the Prosecutor’s Office signs a plea deal with the participants of the premeditated armed conflict which unfolded right before the Akhmeta police chief and 10 police workers, leaving 1 dead and 1 wounded. The Prosecution has already played favorites with the group members by whitewashing their major offenses with more lenient charges, which spared them from life imprisonment.
Conflict over the Construction of Power Plants
A Conflict broke out between families in Pankisi over the construction of two new hydroelectric power stations in the valley. The construction shut down as a result of public protests but was renewed by Alazani Energy on April 21, 2019, in the presence of the special forces unit, which resulted in a clash between the locals and law enforcement. Police utilized rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue the protesters, which, according to official records, left more than 50 injured. During the clash, the locals set fire to police equipment and burned a tractor belonging to the construction company.
The Mutoshvili family actively opposed the construction of the dam, while Kavtarashvili and Phareulidze families were for it. This is a time when the former deputy governor Mate Kavtarashvili was hired by the company building the dam and the Georgia Dream activist Merab Kavtarashvili got appointed as an advisor to the mayor of Akhmeta municipality. The group advocating the construction was spearheaded by one of the Salafi Islamic community’s leaders, businessman Vakhtang Fareulidze, a friend of Alazani Energy’s owner Lasha Iordanishvili and his trusty lobbyist in the region. They repeatedly attempted to recruit construction opponents by convincing or intimidating them into switching sides.
- Omalo’s Shengeli Tokhosashvili was ambushed on the side of the road when returning from Tbilisi. He didn’t stop the car, after which the assailants gave chance and rammed into him. Tokhosashvili lost control and veered into a fence. After stumbling out of the car he was ganged up on and beaten. Among the perpetrators was Murad Kavtarashvili. After settling the case according to customary law, Murad Kavtarashvili reimbursed Shengeli Tokhosashvili for the car, and that was the end of that.
- Murad Kavtarashvili physically assaulted another opponent of the construction, Makho Mutoshvili, who received bodily damage as a result of the attack.
- Murad Kavtarashvili and his gang members also attacked Zaur Mutoshvili and butt-struck him.
- Murad Kavtarashvili had another confrontation with Gela Mutoshvili, who was protesting the construction of dams in the valley.
Qisti elders have been trying to reconcile the opposing sides for months with no luck.
Armed Conflict and Murder in Sakobiano
On November 27, 2019, 36-year-old Visuri Metoshvili, a father of 5, was murdered near the Sakobiano turnoff.
What follows, is how the (former) police chief, Levan Gabunia formulates this even in a criminal case:
„During the afternoon, I was traveling along with my deputies and the sheriff to browse and inspect a new police station being built in the village of Dzibakhevi of Pankisi Valley. Near the village of Matani, the head of the Duisi department, Teimuraz Arabuli radioed in requesting reinforcement, stating that a shootout was live near the Sakobiano village turnoff. We arrived at the scene in 5 minutes. As I stopped and exited the car, I saw there was an active shooting. I declared I was from the police and fired two warning shots, with no effect. I was told by the head of the department that two parties were taking shots at one another. I sent multiple officers toward Kavtarashvili family members as I and a few others approached Metoshvilis. A few listened, as one of Metoshvilis opened the door of a Toyota Camry and stowed away his rifle demonstratively for me to see it. After this, I seized his car keys, locked the doors, and started evacuating people from the area, as the shooting was still ongoing and there was no time to make arrests on the spot. Visuri and Rustan Metoshvilis were confrontational and I was restraining them by hand as the others cooperated and were willingly following my lead toward a safer area. I couldn’t restrain the two of them on my own. They were shouting something, likely swearing on their native Qistian unbeknown to me. As I saw, two persons from the Kavtarashvili group, Ramaz Khangoshvili, and Arbi Kavtarashvili, broke away from the group and started heading towards us, as I was still holding the two Metoshvilis by hand. As Khangoshvili and Kavtaradze encroached upon us, Khangoshvili took a point-blank shot at us from 2-3 meters. I say „at us“, as Ruslan and Visuri Metoshvili were standing next to me. My officers were able to thwart the shot and made Khangoshvili drop the gun. Arbi Kavtarashvili assisted Kavtarashvili, picked up the handgun, and took two shots at Visuri Mutoshvili. Mutoshvili collapsed. He had a punctured pelvis and was bleeding profusely. The wounded was taken to the hospital in the trunk of one of the pickup trucks but expired before reaching the clinic. Both Mutoshvilis were unarmed at the time of the fatal shooting.
„According to the materials of the criminal case, before killing Visuri Mutoshvili, Ramaz Khangoshvili shot at Ruslan Mutoshvili with the intent to kill, injuring his face.
Ramaz Khangoshvili and Arbi Kavtarashvili were detained on December 1. At the time of arrest, Kavtarashvili was illegally carrying a concealed Zigzauer pistol.
The prosecutor’s office charged Ramaz Khangoshvili with attempted murder (art. 19-108), and Arbi Kavtaradze with intentional killing (art.108) as well as articles 237 and 236 – illegal appropriation and possession of, and illegal storage and carry of firearms, respectively.
Arbi Kavtarashvili's Alibi
During the hearing of the case in the Telavi district court, Arbi Kavtarashvili plead not guilty to the charges presented against him and stated that he did not intend to kill Visuri Mutoshvili, but acted merely in self-defense: "When I approached Visuri Mutoshvili, he slipped his hand back, as if reaching for a gun, and I shot at his leg. I'm a good shot and if I was shooting to kill, I wouldn't shoot at his leg. I also had no intention of possessing firearms illegally.
Judge Mamuka Tsiklauri was not sold on Arbi Kavtarashvili’s testimony and dismissed the self-defense claim.
- The fact that Ramaz Khangoshvili and Arbi Kavtarashvili intended to kill Visuri Mutoshvili is self-evident from their own actions. Specifically, Mutoshvili was shot at first by Ramaz Khangoshvili, who missed, and was incapacitated by the police. After Khangoshvili dropped the pistol, it was picked up by Arbi Kavtarashvili who finished the job. He took 2-3 shots but only one found its target and fatally wounded Mutoshvili.
- At the time, police chief Levan Gabunia was standing by the side of Metoshvili and Arbi Kavtarashvili took several shots at Metoshvili, despite the danger of injuring a police officer. The court cannot accept Kavtarashvili’s testimony that he saw Metoshvili try to reach for his gun and reacted in self-defense. It has been established that Metoshvili was unarmed during the shooting.
- If Arbi Kavtarashvili’s intention was to scare, there was no need for a follow-up shot, as Visuri Mutoshvili does not pose any threat at this time, does not charge Kavtarashvili, and has a police officer standing by him, holding him by the belt loop and having him immobilized. These are the conditions in which Arbi Kavtarashvili commits the murder.
Prosecution’s Leniency for Defendants to Pardon More Serious Crimes
The court cannot help but be appalled at the prosecution's failure at appropriate legal assessment of actions by Arbi Kavtarashvili and Ramaz Khangoshvili, namely, its overlooking of the group’s other armed members and unjust leniency towards the two defendants by way of imposing downplayed charges. The Criminal Procedure Code of Georgia obliges the prosecution to conduct a full-scope investigation and sides with the prosecution in court.
Based on the materials of the case, including indisputable evidence, it was established at the court session that during the killing of Mutoshvili, Arbi Kavtarashvili, and Ramaz Khangoshvili acted with mutual intent, which was never evaluated during the investigation. Ramaz Khangoshvili attempted the murder of Mutoshvili first, but for reasons beyond him, was unable to, and missed the first shot. A second shot was thwarted by officers who disarmed him. It is worth noting that Ramaz Khangoshvili is also accused of the attempted murder of another person, Ruslan Mutoshvili, who was at the scene of the incident, meaning that he is guilty of two attempted murders, an act specified in article 109 of the Criminal Code of Georgia. The murder of Visuri Mutoshvili was committed as a policeman was standing next to him, which means that Arbi Kavtarashvili and Ramaz Khangoshvili are also guilty of endangering the life of another person, also covered by art. 109.
The presence of mutual criminal intent is also supported by the fact that the murder weapon utilized in the shooting belongs to Bakar Fareulidze, who lives in Duis village in the Akhmeta region. Based on indisputable evidence, Kavtarashvili obtained without permission and illegally appropriated the weapon from Fareulidze, an offense he had been charged for. This handgun is the one that ended up in Khangoshvili’s hands, who was the first to attempt the killing of Mutoshvili. Under what circumstances and why did Arbi Kavtarashvili hand over the weapon to Ramaz Khangoshvili, or did Khangoshvili take possession of the weapon without permission, this avenue was never pursued during the investigation. A separate matter of inquiry should have been why Khangoshvili was the first one to attempt the murder of Mutoshvili. Ramaz Khangoshvili has been tried for murder in the past, according to the verdict of November 21, 2011; he was later pardoned and the charges were dropped. Neither does the prosecution evaluate whether the pistol ended up in his hands accidentally and whether this could also serve as supporting proof for the existence of prior mutual intent, or why Kavtarashvili’s handing over of the gun to Khangoshvili could constitute an illegal transfer of firearms.
"It is highly unfortunate that in the murder case, they were excused for more serious crimes by filing the wrong charges," wrote Mamuka Tsiklauri in the verdict, noting that the court is no prosecuting body and has no authority to aggravate the charges.
Had the prosecution brought intentional group homicide or intentional endangerment charges under Article 109 against Khangoshvili and Kavtarashvili, they would be faced with 16-20 years or life imprisonment.
Within the verdict, the court draws attention to the fact that the prosecutor's office did not properly investigate the facts of illegal possession and transfer of firearms.
"Bakar Fareulidze elaborated on the investigation that Arbi Kavtarashvili took firearms from his possession without his permission, which was confirmed by Arbi Kavtarashvili. The investigation accepted such testimonies without verifying their correctness and did not rule out a criminal alliance between Arbi Kavtarashvili and Bakar Fareulidze, or look into a possible case of illegal acquisition of firearms through voluntary transfer. The investigation was not concerned with whether Arbi Kavtarashvili would be able to pinpoint the location where the weapon was stored; If it had been secured in a safe, how did he open it? The locking mechanism of the safe was never scrutinized for signs of tampering; or If the safe was coded, whether Arbi Kavtarashvili knew the combination, and if so, whether this code matches the one indicated by Bakar Fareulidze during his interrogation. The said circumstances should have been clarified through interrogation and forensic and technical examinations, which would have revealed or ruled out criminal links between Bakar Fareulidze and Arbi Kavtarashvili.
Here, it is acceptable that Arbi Kavtarashvili was able to enter Bakar Fareulidze's property unnoticed twice, in case of taking the weapon and returning it. It is unfortunate that when a murder was committed with this pistol, the investigative service relied only on the testimony of the accused and the witness in this part." Arbi Kavtarashvili is the sister-in-law of Vakhtang Fareulidze, a businessman and close to the State Security Service, a person interested in the construction of hydroelectric power plants in the Pankisi Valley, and Bakar Fareulidze is the brother of Vakhtang Fareulidze. (Bakar Fareulidze, along with two other persons, Islam Duishvili and Zelimkhan Achishvili, was arrested on charges of kidnapping, coercion, and extortion of money from Tajik businessmen. Islam Duishvili is a member of Vakhtan Fareulidze's personal bodyguard, and Zelimkhan Achishvili is an employee of Fareulidze's restaurant chain. Vakhtang Fareulidze soon managed to release them).
Judge Mamuka Tsilauri of the Telavi District Court sentenced the accused Ramaz Khangoshvili to 9 years in prison, and Arbi Kavtarashvili to 11 years, by the verdict of August 24, 2020.
The verdict was appealed by both the lawyers and the prosecutor's office in the Tbilisi Court of Appeal. In 2020, the case was first assigned to Judge Merab Jorbenadze, then to Shalva Kakauridze, who dodged it. The case is now in the hands of Judge Ekaterine Kululashvili, and the first session is scheduled for March 7, at 3:00 p.m.
Question to the Prosecution
After this court verdict, how did the prosecutor's office react in relation to the supervising prosecutor and the investigators? Has an investigation been launched by the prosecutor or investigators regarding the possible commission of a crime?
Has a new criminal case been initiated to prosecute other armed members of the opposed groups? Has anyone been indicted by the prosecutor's office?
We sent these questions to the prosecutor's office on February 23, but the prosecutor's office did not respond to any of them.
Nor did we receive a response from the lawyer regarding the signing of the plea deal between the prosecutor's office and the representatives of the convicted. Despite many attempts, Tariel Kakabadze did not respond to the phone calls and messages from Georgian News.
Preparation for the Plea Deal
We know for certain that the parents of the victim, Visuri Mutoshvili, were made to sign a document by the Kavtarashvili family, whereby they have no complaints against the convicts and agree to the signing of the plea deal.
The Kavtarashvili side promised the Mutoshvili family to help with the premature release of Visuri Mutoshvili’s brother, Shmagi Mutoshvili, from prison.
Shmagi Mutoshvili was arrested on September 18, 2020. The prosecutor's office charged him with illegal acquisition, storage, and carrying of firearms and attempted murder of two people, which Mutoshvili denied. The case concerns the shooting-up of Murad Kavtarashvili's house on the night of July 29, 2020, in Duis village of Akhmet, in revenge. Murad Kavtarashvili and his parents were in the house at the time, which was hit by several bullets. No one was injured in the shooting. During the trial, Mutoshvili was found not guilty of the attempted murder of two or more people, as well as the illegal carrying of firearms. The court found him guilty of illegal possession of firearms and sentenced him to 4 years and 5 months in prison.
About 200 people gathered in Duis village on February 21, demanding the release of Arbi Kavtarashvili and Ramaz Khangoshvili from prison. Local residents met with the mayor of Akhmeta municipality, Alexi Fitskhelauri, asking for help and promised that there will be no ‘revenge-killing’ in case of release. Many participants of the rally confirmed that the mayor promised to help them. The mayor of Akhmeta, Alexi Fitskhelauri, is the nephew of Shengeli Fitskhelauri, the deputy head of the State Security Service of Georgia.