The specter of Sandro Girgvliani has hung over Georgian politics since the day the young banker was beaten and left to die outside Tbilisi in 2006.
When former Georgian Prime Minister and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was charged this week with obstructing the investigation into Girgvliani's killing, any hope that President Mikheil Saakashvili would be able to put this blot on his legacy behind him seemed to fade away.
The killing and the alleged massive government cover-up of the crime produced widespread disenchantment with the ideals of the Rose Revolution, a wave of democratic optimism that Saakashvili rode to power in 2003. It was particularly damaging because it tarnished the president's key achievement -- the reform of Georgia's notoriously corrupt and unprofessional police force.
"This case contradicted the promises [of Saakashvili's government] and the reforms that were going on in Georgia back then," Kakha Gogolashvili, head of the Center for European Studies in Tbilisi, says. "Everybody knows that the police reform in Georgia, which was initiated by Vano Merabishvili, aimed at increasing security for citizens. But, at the same time, there was this case in which Vano Merabishvili was directly connected to the torture of a man and the use of excessive force by the police."
There are currently many shadows lingering over Saakashvili's legacy -- including revelations of scandalous surveillance tapes made during his years in power and chronic charges of torture within the law enforcement structures that have reemerged since the Georgian Dream coalition took power in October. But the case of Sandro Girgvliani, with its salacious details and evidence of a far-reaching cover-up conspiracy, seems to loom particularly large.
Girgvliani, the 28-year-old head of the international department of the United Georgian Bank, was killed overnight on January 27-28, 2006. His body was found with multiple injuries indicating massive physical abuse or torture. It has never been established if he died of his injuries or froze to death after being abandoned.
A Matter Of 'Personal Presige'
Days after the killing, Imedi-TV broadcast an investigation revealing that in the hours before his death, Girgvliani had been in an elite bar where a top Interior Ministry official was celebrating his birthday with friends and colleagues, including Merabishvili's wife, Tako Salaqaia.
Girgvliani reportedly got into a dispute with the officials and insulted one of them. He and a friend soon left the bar and were subsequently forced into a Mercedes and taken to a Tbilisi suburb called Okrokana. The friend was able to escape -- and contributed to the Imedi investigation. But Girgvliani was beaten, probably tortured, and left to die in the freezing winter night.
Girgvliani's family and many members of parliament accused top Interior Ministry officials of involvement and called for an independent investigation.
Merabishvili, however, took over the case personally, saying "the investigation of this case is a matter of my personal prestige and the prestige of the Interior Ministry." But a month after the killing he told parliament there was no evidence against any of the officials mentioned in Imedi's report. He dismissed the charges as attempts to discredit him personally and the reforms he'd overseen.
Soon afterward four police officers -- none of whom were mentioned in the Imedi report -- were arrested in the case. Parliamentarians continued calling for Merabishvili to resign.
In the face of extreme public and political pressure, investigators finally questioned most of the officials who were in the bar with Girgvliani on the night he was killed -- including Merabishvili's wife -- at the end of June 2006. Investigators concluded that none of them was involved in the killing. Instead, they said, his death stemmed from a separate dispute between Girgvliani and the four arrested police officers, who ran into him after he and his friend had left the bar.
In July 2006, the four police officers were convicted of inflicting the injuries that resulted in Girgvliani's death. One was sentenced to eight years in prison, while the other three got seven years. Later, their sentences were reduced by half under a presidential pardon and all four were released in September 2009.
'Acting In Concert'
Prosecutors now allege that Merabishvili, in addition to orchestrating an overall cover-up, paid each of the men $100,000 and that they were given extremely favorable treatment while they were in prison. Merabishvili denies all the accusations against him and says the charges are politically motivated.
Throughout the scandal, Saakashvili stood by his longtime ally, Merabishvili, despite mounting evidence of a seriously flawed investigation. Girgvliani's family took the matter to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which in 2011 issued a 69-page report slamming the investigation.
"The court is struck by how the different branches of state power...acted in concert in preventing justice from being done," the ruling said. It said the government failed to consider the "credible allegations of complicity" between the officials in the bar the night of the murder and the police officers who were accused of causing Girgvliani's death.
Kakha Kozhoridze, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, says the ECHR ruling cemented the scandal and convinced the public of the breadth of the problems within Saakashvili's government.
"The European Court of Human Rights said it directly," Kozhoridze says. "The judges were shocked by the systemic problems they saw during the investigation. They saw that the joint action of the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor's office, the penitentiary administration, the courts, the president, and the Justice Ministry were all directed at covering up, at concealing, and at preventing a proper investigation of this case. This reflects the systemic problem that existed in Georgia."
For seven years the Girgvliani case has been the indelible stain on what was once believed to be the brightest part of Saakashvili's legacy.
As the case against Merabishvili goes to court and the possibility looms that Saakashvili himself could face charges after his term as president expires in the fall, Girgvliani's ghost will continue to haunt the man who once embodied the hopes for democratic reform in Georgia.
Luka Kalandarishvili, an intern with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, contributed to this report