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Georgia: Diplomat Pleads Guilty In Fatal Auto Crash

Washington, 9 October 1997(RFE/RL) - Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze told a judge in Washington Wednesday that he is guilty of causing a traffic accident last January that killed a 16-year-old girl and injured four other people.

Makharadze, who was the second secretary in his country's embassy in Washington, told U.S. District Court Judge Harold Cushenberry that he was taking "full responsibility" for causing the crash. The judge ordered him to be held without bail until sentencing on December 19, saying Makharadze had demonstrated "a callous disregard for others."

The judge cited two earlier incidents involving Makharadze, who had been charged in April 1996 with speeding in suburban Virginia and detained four months later by Washington police, but was released after he claimed diplomatic immunity.

Channing Phillips, a spokesman at the United States Attorney's Office which handled the prosecution, told RFE/RL that Makharadze's guilty plea came as no surprise. Phillips says the diplomat's Washington lawyers had informed prosecutors last week of their decision to plead guilty.

Makharadze's lawyer Lawrence Barcella told RFE/RL that his client pleaded guilty because "he felt responsibility ever since the accident happened."

The Washington police department said that Makharadze was drunk when his car slammed into a line of automobiles waiting at a stoplight at a busy downtown street in the early hours of January 3.

Sixteen-year old Joviane Waltrick was killed in the five-car crash and four others were seriously injured. Waltrick was the daughter of Brazilian immigrants who had come to the U.S. just one year earlier.

The incident spotlighted growing world concern about the issue of diplomatic immunity.

Although Makharadze was protected from prosecution as a result of his diplomatic status, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze waived his immunity, saying it was a "moral decision."

Shevardnadze, who is said to be close personal friends with Makharadze and his mother, is quoted in an interview last January with the American newspaper the Washington Post as saying that he believes the moral principle of just punishment outweighs the practice of diplomatic immunity.

Said Shevardnadze: "He was a very promising diplomat and we would have considered something [prominent] for him in the future. It was with a very heavy heart that I took this decision ... but no matter what the sentence may be, I'd still believe my very harsh decision would be justified. Justice is very often ruthless."

In a statement issued Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Mary Lou Leary, the lead prosecuting attorney in the case, expressed her "sincere gratitude" to the government of Georgia for waiving Makharadze's diplomatic immunity and paving the way for his prosecution.

The U.S. Attorney's office also released detailed court documents concerning the case, providing new insight into the incident.

For example, court documents reveal that an hour and a half after the accident, Makharadze had a blood alcohol level of at least 0.15 percent. Prosecutors say it may have been as high as 0.19 percent at the time of the accident. The legal limit for driving in Washington is 0.10 percent.

Prosecutors also say that shortly after the accident, Makharadze told police his brakes had failed. But court documents show that after a thorough examination by several experts, the braking system was determined to have been fully functional immediately prior to the accident.

Waltrick's mother, after hearing Makharadze's guilty plea, told reporters: "My daughter will not come back. But it's been worth the fight because immunity is not impunity." Makharadze pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter (causing death without intent) and four counts of aggravated assault. The involuntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and the aggravated assault charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years each.

If the judge decides on the most severe penalty, Makhradze could receive a sentence of 70 years in prison.