Georgia's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gestures while speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.
Tbilisi - Georgia has rejected a Russian demand for the extradition of a Chechen separatist, the Georgian justice minister said on Tuesday.
"I want to tell you that Georgia has refused to extradite [Akhmed] Chatayev to Russia, and that is a matter of principle for us," Tea Tsulukiani told people from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge who had gathered outside her ministry and demand Chatayev's release from pretrial detention.
Chatayev, who is a Russian national, was arrested by Georgian special forces in September during an operation in a border area against a group of militants who had crossed the frontier into Georgia from the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan.
Tsulukiani said five Chechens whom Georgia extradited to Russia in 2002 had disappeared.
"Several years ago, the government of [President Mikheil] Saakashvili handed over two Chechens to the Russian Federation. We know nothing about what happened to them, but this tradition must be brought to an end," the minister said.
She promised that Chatayev would receive a fair trial in Georgia.
Two Georgian special forces fighters and a Georgian army doctor were killed during the operation during which Chatayev was detained, and the bodies of 11 militants were found thereafter. Of the seven bodies that were identified, two were Georgians and five were Russian citizens. The operation was launched on August 28.
Chatayev told reporters through a lawyer that he had nothing to do with the group that had infiltrated Georgia from Dagestan.
He said the Georgian Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism center had asked him to hold talks with the group. Such talks began, but they were fired upon, and he was wounded in the leg. After hiding in the forest for several days, he came out onto a road and stopped a car, which happened to be carrying border guards.
Chatayev had his wounded leg amputated in a prison hospital. Several years ago, he had his arm amputated for the same reason.
Independent Georgian analysts believe Chatayev's evidence may definitively clarify August's border area incident.
According to some media reports, Chatayev is Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov's emissary in Europe.
Chatayev, who enjoys refugee status in Austria, was detained in Ukraine in January 2010, but released several months later.
In 2011, he was detained near the Turkish border in Bulgaria, and a Bulgarian court ordered his extradition to Russia, but an appeals court in Plovdiv repealed the order because of his refugee status in Austria and his being subject to protection under Geneva conventions and the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Bulgaria is a signatory to the latter.