Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: US Prisoner Deal Causes Concern

Tbilisi’s acceptance of Guantanamo inmates worries opposition. By Dimitri Avaliani in Tbilisi
By Dimitri Avaliani
  • Opposition in Georgia say presence of Guantanamo inmates would increase threat of violence against the country. Source: US Army www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/
    Opposition in Georgia say presence of Guantanamo inmates would increase threat of violence against the country. Source: US Army www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/

Tbilisi’s deployment of extra troops in Afghanistan is broadly supported by Georgians, though a second Washington-friendly policy – the acceptance of three ex-inmates from Guantanamo – has proved far more controversial.
 
Since President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003, he has sought to ally himself closely to the United States, a policy that has enraged Moscow but is widely backed in his country.
 
A 750-strong battalion flew to Afghanistan on April 7, and will serve under American command in the turbulent Helmand province. Other Georgian troops are already deployed with French units in the country.
 
Opposition parties, which are not usually reluctant to criticise Saakashvili’s policies, have stayed quiet on the move, but the same cannot be said of the Guantanamo agreement.
 
Washington has been searching worldwide for homes for inmates from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which it is seeking to close, and Saakashvili’s government said it was accepting three men – who were transferred to Georgia late last month –  as part of the two countries’ “strategic partnership”.
 
The men, who have been identified in the press as Libyans, will be free in Georgia and can bring their families, but will not be able to leave the country. Opposition leaders like Koba Davitashvili, head of the Georgian People’s Party, said that was insulting to Georgians.
 
“The fact that people who lived in Guantanamo will live here freely shows that the USA regards Georgia as one big prison,” he said.
 
The government has insisted the men will be able to choose their own residence in the country.
 
“We are sure that they do not pose any threat,” said Shota Utiashvili, head of the interior ministry’s analytical department, who said the police had studied their files.
 
But Davitashvili was just one of several opposition leaders who said the men’s presence would increase the threat of violence against Georgia.
 
“The American and British secret services cannot guarantee security in their own countries because of the terrorists that sit in the Guantanamo prison,” Jondi Bagaturia, leader of the Kartuli Dasi party and a member of parliament, said.
 
He asked why the 200 remaining Guantanamo inmates couldn’t be settled in the US if they posed no threat.
 
Kakha Dzagania, secretary of the Labour Party, was as forthright in his condemnation of the move.  “Saakashvili has turned Georgia into a concentration camp and has started to import prisoners,” he said.
 
The move, he said, would turn the Muslim world against Georgia just to win the approval of Washington. “Let them send the Guantanamo prisoners straight back where they were born. There is no need for them to come here,” he said.
 
“No self-respecting president should allow anyone to turn his country into a place of exile, but Saakashvili has done this to attempt to restore his damaged reputation in the eyes of the US president, and to gain a meeting with him.”
 
The interior ministry’s Utiashvili was baffled by the suggestion the men could somehow prove harmful to the country.
 
“These people were not picked up engaging in terrorist activities. They did not come to Georgia so as to commit terrorist acts. These people have not even been tried. They know that they will have to answer for any violation under Georgian law,” he said.
 
But his view was not shared in Moscow, where the foreign ministry strongly condemned Georgia’s decision to admit the men in just the latest sign of disagreement between two countries that have feuded since the end of the Soviet Union, and which even fought a war in 2008.
 
“The movement of Guantanamo prisoners to Georgia can hardly be called a ‘happy idea’. People connected to terrorism have been sent to an unstable region, where the threat of terrorism is palpable, and then given ‘into the care’ of a state where the leadership has often shown the greatest irresponsibility and criminal adventurism in affairs of regional security,” Andrei Nesterenko, the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said.
 
He said Russia was not confident that Georgia would be able to keep the men under control, or that the men might not end up in the North Caucasus where they could join groups fighting Russian rule in and around Chechnya.
 
Most independent experts in Georgia, like former education minister Gia Nodia, who now chairs the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development think tank, said both sides were over-reacting and that Georgia’s alliance with America did not put national security at risk.
 
“Georgia has already sent troops to Iraq, but has not ended up on the terrorists’ priority list,” Nodia said, in words echoed by Tornike Sharashenidze, an expert from the Institute for Public Affairs.
 
“Georgia is not such an important player in the international arena that it has come to the terrorists’ attention. It is not worth their while to expend resources on Georgia,” Sharashenidze said.
 
“Besides, everyone understands that we’re not particularly opposed to anyone. We just want to develop relations with the United States.”
 
Dimitri Avaliani is a reporter from the 24 Hours newspaper.

More IWPR's Global Voices