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Armed Attack on Balda Canyon Guards Leaves 2 Wounded

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Wednesday, 12 June 2024 13:48 hits 175 times

Warning: This article contains disturbing content

On the evening of June 11, at around 23:00, local residents gathered in a tent in Martvili, Balda village, who had been protesting the illegal alienation of the unique Balda Canyon for more than seven months, were attacked. As activist Tsotne Tvaradze says, before attacking the tent, individuals armed with hunting rifles and knives wounded two people.

"Two drunk and armed individuals attacked us. They are supporters of the investor and they live in this village. Before attacking the tent, they assaulted one of our fellow villagers. The local resident attempted to disarm the attacker wielding a rifle, but the assailant tried to cut his ear with a knife. There were many people in the tent, including children. One of them was hit by bullets and both attackers had knives. They barged in, brandishing a knife, but we managed to disarm them. We immediately called the police and an ambulance.

The investor and the Ministry of Environmental Protection are complicit. We had warned everyone that they would try to instigate a confrontation using our fellow villagers, and that's exactly what happened. One of our villagers was also injured on the road.

This is primarily the fault of the Ministry, stemming from their decisions and the corruption here. They have left us at the mercy of abusers. Additionally, the police's inaction is glaring; they did nothing despite prior knowledge of the escalating situation," says Tsotne Tvaradze.

Mindia Bzhalava, who was wounded, was taken to Kutaisi Hospital by the emergency medical aid brigade. He sustained injuries to his face, head, throat, back, and chest. His life is no longer in danger.

Martvili police have arrested brothers Gela and Giga Khurtsilavas, born in 1979 and 1983, on charges of attempted murder and threats against Balda Canyon guards.

These crimes are punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Based on the Ministry of Internal Affairs’s information, the investigation has revealed that the accused stabbed 33-year-old Mindia Bzhalava, a fellow villager, with a knife, and 32-year-old Archil Bzhalava was also injured during the incident. The police have also established that the defendants threatened to kill locals by brandishing a knife and a hunting rifle. The weapons used in the crime have been seized as evidence. The investigation is being conducted under Articles 19-108 and 151 of the Criminal Code.

One of the attackers, Gela Khurtsilava, participated in a meeting organized by Canyon 350 LLC a few days before the crime, on May 27, to support the project in Balda Canyon. At the meeting, he stated,

"I'm calling on everyone, I would be happy if something is done near my house, if I earn a bit for my family, if I can improve our lives. I don't harm anyone, and I expect the same. Some people are spreading rumors and insults; they should focus on their own homes and families."

The Canyon 350 company, which acquired control of the Balda natural monument for 40 years through corrupt decisions, has been conducting an aggressive campaign against the protesters for months. They have labeled them as saboteurs, instigated conflicts among local residents, and have been harassing and attempting to intimidate activists.

The agencies of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, including the Environmental Supervision Service, are actively involved in the protracted persecution process. The company aims to construct a 407-meter roller coaster, boardwalk, and hiking trails at Balda Canyon to conduct business there. The locals were unaware of the 40-year lease of Baldi Canyon until the natural monument was fenced off, and people were prohibited from entering. The residents of Balda believe that the proposed project will alter and destroy the canyon's landscape, a notion they strongly oppose.

Balda, Okatse, and Martvili Canyons, Prometheus Cave, and Sataplia Nature Reserve - the most popular natural monuments - have been under the management of one group for decades. Leading this group are former and current high-ranking officials of the ruling Georgian Dream government: Valerian Mchedlidze, the former chairman of the Protected Areas Agency, and Mamuka Merkviladze, who was appointed as the head of the Georgian section in Russia. Mtis Ambebi investigated and found that the decisions allowing this group to take possession of these protected territories for 20, 35, and 40 years were made by Valerian Mchedlidze during his chairmanship. After his resignation, Mchedlidze and his family members were predominantly allocated large shares, some of which were acquired at symbolic and preferential prices. The money he paid to some companies, based on his property declaration, should not have been possible. Despite this corruption scheme, Valerian Mchedlidze is now overseeing the largest project financed by the German state for the development of protected areas in Georgia, with a budget exceeding 16 million euros.

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