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Georgia: Resolution Of Diplomat's Accident Case Near

Washington, 29 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An official at the U.S. Attorney's office says he expects the matter of a fatal traffic accident involving Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze to be settled within the next two weeks.

Kevin Ohlson, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney's Office, told RFE/RL that although no charges have been filed, no arrests made, and no indictment handed down against Makharadze yet, he believes the matter will be resolved soon.

On January 3, Makharadze, 35, the second-highest ranking diplomat at the Georgian Embassy in Washington, slammed into a car stopped at a traffic light, causing a five-car accident that killed a 16-year-old girl.

U.S. prosecutors have already said they have enough evidence to seek a grand jury indictment charging Makharadze with either negligent homicide (causing death by careless or reckless action), involuntary manslaughter (causing death without intent) or second-degree murder (not pre-meditated murder). The sentences for each of these charges vary widely, with second-degree murder being the most serious.

But because Makharadze enjoys diplomatic immunity -- as do all diplomats around the world -- he might have avoided being charged in the incident. However, because of intense public pressure and high-profile media attention to the case, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher asked Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to consider waiving Makharadze's diplomatic immunity.

Shevardnadze agreed, saying he was prepared to waive immunity pending the outcome of the investigation.

Shevardnadze's compliance has sparked outrage in Georgia where newspapers are accusing the president of not protecting its citizens.

Shevardnadze, who is said to be close personal friends of Makharadze and his mother, was quoted by a U.S. newspaper as saying he believes the moral principle of just punishment outweighs the practice of diplomatic immunity. He also added that whatever punishment Makharadze receives, it would hurt as if "my own children were punished."

The original investigation into the incident was conducted by the local Washington police department. The results of that inquiry were then turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office as a result of Makharadze's diplomatic status. Ohlson says his office is still conducting its investigation, although the end is in sight.

According to the official Washington police report, which has been made public, on the night of January 3 in downtown Washington, Makharadze's car slammed into the rear of another vehicle stopped at a red light. The struck car was hit so hard that it flew through the air and landed on top of the next vehicle in line, crushing it. Two other cars also suffered damage in the accident.

Joviane Waltrick, a high school student and a passenger in the crushed car, was pronounced dead at a local hospital 90 minutes later. Waltrick was the daughter of Brazilian immigrants who had come to the United States just one year earlier.

According to the police report, witnesses claimed that Makharadze's car was traveling at a high rate of speed. Investigators noted on the report that the skid marks suggest his speed was around 129 kilometers per hour before the impact.

Police who responded to the accident said they smelled alcohol on Makharadze's breath, but that he was not given a breath test because of his diplomatic immunity.

Makharadze said his brakes failed, according to the report, but investigators noted that a subsequent inspection of his car did not support his claim. Moreover, say investigators, the skid marks indicate that he braked very hard at the last moment to avoid the accident.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters two weeks ago that Makharadze had three prior traffic violations, one of which resulted in a minor accident, and another where he was charged with driving more than 129 kilometers per hour in a suburb of Washington.

On Monday, the mother of Joviane Waltrick, Viviani Wagner, spoke to reporters through an interpreter at the scene of the accident. Surrounded by her husband and two sons, she called upon Makharadze to waive his diplomatic immunity and face justice.

"I'm not calling for the maximum sentence for Mr. Makharadze," Wagner said, holding back tears. "I just want that he respond for his actions as I would -- without diplomatic immunity. Surely his sentence will be less than what I have to live with. To live the rest of my days without the embrace of my daughter."

Makharadze has been ordered by his government to stay in the United States until the outcome of the investigation is announced.