TBILISI, GEORGIA - On Tuesday the Georgian parliament’s legal issues committee took up legislation that would make it illegal for Georgian citizens to join illegal armed groups in a foreign country, join terrorist groups, or incite violence or hatred.
The action was prompted by an appeal by inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge, a valley region in the northeastern part of the country, who called on Georgia’s prime minister, parliament and Interior Minister to take steps to prevent the radicalization of local youth.
They said groups operating in the Pankisi Gorge are promoting participation in the Syrian civil war and recruiting young people to, in the words of the residents, “fight in a foreign war.”
The Pankisi Gorge is near Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia’s restive North Caucasus. It is inhabited mainly by Kists — ethnic Chechens who settled in the Pankisi Gorge in the 18th century.
Georgian media quoted Khaso Khangoshvili , a member of the local Council of Elders as saying: “The Council of Elders condemns the involvement of Kist youth in the war in Syria. (We) cannot prevent this abnormal phenomenon. We call on the Interior Ministry, government and parliament to assist us.”
Khangoshvili’s statement came after the Council met on April 6 to agree on wording for the appeal to the Georgian government.
According to unconfirmed reports, 50 to 100 Kists are fighting in Syria. Among them is Tarkhan Batirashvili, a 28-year-old Georgian citizen known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani, who is one of the military leaders of the Islamic State. The U.S. Treasury Department last year put Batirashvili on its list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”
Eleven Georgian citizens have reportedly been killed while fighting in Syria, and all of them were from the Pankisi Gorge.
Teens left for to join militant group
Residents of the Pankisi Gorge first began openly talking about the danger posed by the radicalization of local youth earlier this month after two high school students – 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili — ran away from home. According to their parents, the youths wanted to go to Syria to fight on the side of the Islamic State.
The parents of the runaway students claim that their sons could not have left the country without assistance, because they had no identity papers or money. The grandmother of Kushtanashvili said he has never even traveled to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
After Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili failed to return home from school, their relatives went to the police. The next day, Bagakashvili texted his family that he was in Turkey and that they should not worry.
After the Pankisi elders raised the alarm, other parents came forward to report their sons had also left Georgia. They appealed to the authorities to assist them in bringing their children home.
Negligence on the border
Since one of the students is a minor, many are asking how a 16-year-old could have crossed the border without the necessary parental consent.
Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri put the blame on border security personnel.
"The border guard did wrong when, in fact, this person was able to slip by,” Gomelauri said Monday. “As the border guard subsequently explained, he (Kushtanashvili) didn't look like a minor and did not arouse suspicion. But this, of course, doesn't justify it... The actions of the border guard will not remain without consequences.”
Gomelauri said the Georgian side has contacted Turkish law enforcement authorities requesting assistance in apprehending Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili.