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Georgia Downplays ECHR Criticism Of High-Profile Murder Trial

Demonstrators put up posters calling for the punishment of the "murderers of Sandro Girgvliani" at a rally in Tbilisi in April 2006.
Demonstrators put up posters calling for the punishment of the "murderers of Sandro Girgvliani" at a rally in Tbilisi in April 2006.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) passed judgment against the Georgian government last week over a high-profile murder trial, concluding that "different branches of state power -- including the Ministry of the Interior, the prosecution authority, the domestic courts and the president of Georgia -- had all acted in concert in preventing justice from being done."

But Georgian Deputy Justice Minister Tina Burjaliani on April 27 ruled out a retrial, saying that the ECHR ruling did not call for one, Caucasus Press reported.

The trial in question was that in 2006 of four Georgian Interior Ministry officials accused of the murder in January of that year of United Georgian Bank official Sandro Girgvliani, 28.

Girgvliani had a heated argument with Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Guram Donadze at Tbilisi's Sharden bar early on January 28, 2006, after finding his girlfriend at the table where Donadze was sitting with other senior ministry officials and Tako Salakaia, the wife of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. When Girgvliani and his companion Levan Bukhaidze left the bar an hour later, they were forced into an automobile, driven to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, and savagely beaten.

Bukhaidze managed to escape. Girgvliani's body, stripped naked to the waist and with traces of beatings and knife wounds to the throat, was found late that afternoon.

On March 6, 2006, Merabishvili announced at a press conference that four members of his ministry's Department of Constitutional Security (not including any of those present at the Sharden bar on the night of January 27-28) had been arrested in connection with the killing, but failed to specify their motive.

Merabishvili dismissed Donadze the following day, and on March 13 suspended the two other ministry officials who were with Donadze at the bar on January 28 after human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari issued a toughly worded statement saying that "in any state that is, or aspires to be, democratic," any officials implicated in the killing would have been dismissed immediately.

The killing triggered widespread public outrage. Ninety prominent members of the Georgian intelligentsia addressed an open letter to President Mikheil Saakashvili calling for a fair and transparent investigation. Drivers across the country sounded their horns on March 16 to demand that Saakashvili dismiss Merabishvili, a demand that Saakashvili publicly rejected outright as "very funny," affirming that "everybody who deserves to be arrested [for the murder] already has been."

The four men accused of the murder went on trial on June 27, 2006; Bukhaidze identified three of them as having beaten him. The four accused pled guilty to having taken Girgvliani and Bukhaidze to the outskirts of Tbilisi and beating them, but denied killing Girgvliani. On July 6, three were sentenced to seven and the fourth to eight years in prison for inflicting bodily harm with a lethal outcome.

Whether, as Girgvliani's family and many other Georgians firmly believe, they acted on orders from one of the higher-ranking Interior Ministry officials present at the Sharden bar on the night in question was not clarified.

In August 2007, Georgia's Supreme Court reduced the sentences of all four by six months; in March 2009, their prison terms were further slashed by half in what Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze termed "a big political mistake." They were released from prison in September 2009, whereupon Georgian Patriarch Ilia II granted them his personal blessing.

The European Court ruling of April 26 found that the investigation into the circumstances of Girgvliani's death "manifestly lacked the requisite independence, impartiality, objectivity, and thoroughness" and did not attempt to clarify some of those circumstances.

The ECHR said in its judgment that it "deplores that...the authorities turned a blind eye to the applicants' credible allegation of complicity between some of the persons from the interior minister's wife's group in the cafe and the direct perpetrators of the crime. Such a selective approach by the domestic authorities is unacceptable for the court because, in order for an investigation to be effective, its conclusions must always be based on thorough, objective, and impartial analysis of all relevant elements. Failing to follow an obvious line of inquiry undermines the investigation's ability to establish the circumstances of the case and the person responsible."

The court ruled that the Georgian government must pay 50,000 euros ($74,010) in compensation to Girgvliani's family, which had demanded 300,000 euros.

As noted above, the ECHR stopped short of explicitly advocating a retrial. But John Dalhuisen, deputy director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia section, immediately called on the Georgian authorities to investigate the killing "thoroughly and impartially."

"The [ECHR] ruling is a timely reminder to the Georgian authorities of their obligation to end the impunity of public officials. Amnesty International has repeatedly raised concerns over Georgia's failure to bring law enforcement officials to justice.... The Georgian authorities must carry out prompt, thorough, and effective investigations into allegations of human rights violations and bring those responsible to justice in a court of law, whatever their position of power," the website quoted Dalhuisen as saying.

Opposition parties represented in the Georgian parliament had twice called for such a probe, in February 2007 and November 2009, but on both occasions their initiative was voted down.

If the Georgian authorities now take no further action to clarify those aspects of the killing that remain unclear, they will play into the hands of both the radical and moderate opposition camps. Former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, a leading member of the latter grouping, has already characterized the ECHR ruling as a judgment that Saakashvili's regime conspired to cover up "the truth about this terrible murder."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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