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Georgia: Diplomat To Face Criminal Charges For Crash Death

Washington, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Today is an important day for Georgian official Gueorgui Makharadze, the diplomat in Washington whose immunity was waived allowing criminal proceedings to be brought against him for causing a fatal car accident.

Makharadze's American lawyer Kirby Behre said in an RFE/RL interview that he will be discussing with U.S. prosecutors today for the first time what criminal charges are to be brought against his client. Behre was reluctant to go into details about the charges before the meeting.

He said only that "Mr. Makharadze is looking forward to forthrightly facing the U.S. legal system and respects the judgement of his government to waive his diplomatic immunity."

The U.S. State Department Tuesday formally notified the U.S. Justice Department of the Georgian government's waiver, ending its own role in the case.

Announcing the move, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said it was no longer a matter for diplomacy and all questions should now be directed to American legal authorities.

He also said the United States thanks the Georgian government "for its close cooperation right from the start in what has been a very tragic matter."

The tragedy occurred on the night of January 3 when the automobile Makharadze was driving crashed into another vehicle, causing a five-car accident in which three people were injured and a 16-year-old girl was killed.

There was an immediate public outcry which has continued in spite of apologies from Georgia and President Eduard Shevardnadze's early pledge to take the unusual step of waivering diplomatic immunity.

Several members of the U.S. Congress said they would work to cut off U.S. aid to Georgia unless Makharadze was punished under U.S. law. And behind the scenes, the United States is believed to have exerted heavy pressure on the government in Tbilisi to agree to the waiver.

But the Georgian government's acquiescence sets a precedent that could come back to haunt Americans. Critics in Washington say it will make U.S. diplomats around the world more vulnerable to similar pressures.

Davies denied that the Makharadze case could affect the broad issue of diplomatic immunity. But he acknowledged that the United States benefits more than most countries from the concept because it has so many diplomatic missions.

The United States has thousands of diplomats at 250 embassies and consulates all around the world. Davies said "some of them are in pretty tough neighborhoods, in places where if there was no diplomatic immunity, our people would be subject to all manner of harrassment by local authorities."

Makharadze, until January 3 regarded as a brilliant young diplomat with a promising career ahead of him, has more immediate problems to worry about.

He could now face a charge of involuntary manslaughter that carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. Some American sympathizers say that at most Makharadze should face the lesser charge of negligent homicide that is punishable with up to five years in prison.

This is expected to be the focus of the meeting of lawyers in Washington Wednesday. Three sides are represented in the case -- the U.S. attorney's office which will prosecute, Makharadze's lawyer Behre, who will defend and Robert Bennett, who looks after the interests of the Georgian embassy in the United States. It is not quite clear what he will be doing.

But as one Makharadze supporter pointed out "clearly the interests of the government of Georgia diverge from the interests of Mr. Makharadze even though he is an official of that government."

The observer, who spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the immunity waiver satisfied the Americans, assured that U.S. aid would continue and was thus good for the government of Georgia but it certainly was not good for Makharadze.

He could be charged as early as today and arraigned in court within days to plead guilty or not guilty. A "not guilty" plea would have to be resolved by trial. If a jury convicts Makharadze he would go to prison.

At the State Department, Davies emphasized that under American law, Makharadze is presumed innocent until proven otherwise and declined to comment on where Makharadze might serve his sentence. "He hasn't been convicted of any crime yet," Davies said.

Shevardnadze said in a radio address earlier this week that Makharadze should serve any prison sentence in Georgia rather than Washington.

Davies noted that this is possible to arrange if Georgia becomes a member of the so-called Strasbourg convention, an international treaty on returning prisoners to their native land when they commit a crime in another country.

A State Department official told RFE/RL that Georgia could easily become a member of the convention under certain conditions. One is the requirement that the prisoner serve out the term and not be released once he is home.

The official said it would probably take about six months to process Georgia for membership in the Strasbourg convention.

It is likely to take at least that amount of time for Makharadze to be brought to trial. But he may not be. A guilty plea would allow the opposing lawyers to negotiate the length and harshness of his sentence. If they can agree and a judge approves, everyone would be spared the cost and embarrassment of a public trial.