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Specter Of Police Abuse Still Haunting Georgia

"Tomorrow it will be one year since they devastated our family and killed our beloved son, 22 years old and a fourth-year student," Yuri Vazagashvili told reporters in May 2007. (file photo)
"Tomorrow it will be one year since they devastated our family and killed our beloved son, 22 years old and a fourth-year student," Yuri Vazagashvili told reporters in May 2007. (file photo)

Georgia's path away from its Soviet legacy of police abuse of power has been long, tortured, and littered with corpses. And there is still no end in sight.

On January 20, Yuri Vazagashvili -- who had long campaigned for investigations into the unlawful use of deadly force by police -- was killed by a bomb that had been planted on the grave of his son, who was gunned down by police in the center of Tbilisi in 2006.

The brazen cynicism of the daylight attack has rocked Georgia, where many had hoped the 2012 election of a new government to replace that of former President Mikheil Saakashvili would lead to genuine reform and the punishment of law enforcement officials who abused their authority.

Many in Georgia criticized the Saakashvili government for allegedly relying on police violence and for failing to investigate many deaths at the hands of police. The new government of the Georgian Dream coalition has actively played up these allegations.

Lawyer Ana Natsvlishvili, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, says the faith in the new government to usher in changes was truly remarkable. "Many people who lost children during police raids in those years told me that they didn't even hire a lawyer when prosecutors [from the new government] reopened their cases," she says. "Because that's how much they trusted the prosecutors.

"This is not a small thing," she continues. "This showed a high level of trust, and the state does not have the right to let these people down once again."

'Criminal Gang'

But Vazagashvili's killing has many in Georgia thinking just that -- they have been let down once again.

When 22-year-old Zura Vazagashvili was killed in a shoot-out with police, officials were quick to blame him and the men who were in the car with him, one of whom was also killed and the other wounded.

Police said the three men were planning "to rob an apartment," so officials decided "to detain the group" before they carried out the crime, explained the head of the criminal-police division of Tbilisi, Irakli Kadagidze, at a press conference on May 2, 2006, the very day of the shooting.

"However the criminal gang noticed the police operatives and opened fire on them," Kadagidze said. "Fire was returned and, as a result, Aleksandre Khubulov and Zurab Vazagashvili -- two members of the gang -- were killed on the spot. A third member, Buba Puturidze, was wounded."

But that explanation began to fall apart almost immediately, especially after police showed photographs of the victims' car in which the rear window was clearly intact.

Zura Vazagashvili had no criminal convictions, although Khubulov had been arrested before. Since Vazagashvili was killed, unconfirmed speculation about possible criminal activity has emerged at different times.

Yuri Vazagashvili was killed by a bomb at his son's grave.
Yuri Vazagashvili was killed by a bomb at his son's grave.

A Father's Campaign

So the elder Vazagashvili began his very public campaign for justice. "Tomorrow it will be one year since they devastated our family and killed our beloved son, 22 years old and a fourth-year student," he told reporters in May 2007. "And, on top of this, they have been insulting the deceased ever since, calling him a criminal and robber."

In 2009, Yuri Vazagashvili was still at it, blaming Saakashvili, then-Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, and then-Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili for the killing and cover-up.

"Enough already," he said in August 2009. "It's shameful. You love your children, but others do, too. I cannot imagine how anyone who loves his own children can shoot someone else's child. This will not stand."

He continued this work until his death. Just one week before he was killed, Vazagashvili claimed some police officials who were responsible for his son's death were still working in the Interior Ministry and were being protected by Interior Minister Aleksandre Chikaidze.

Chikaidze denied the allegations but resigned on January 23, three days after Vazagashvili was killed, issuing a statement saying he felt "moral responsibility."

Selective Justice

Since then, the case has seemingly moved forward quickly. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gave a television interview in which he said the government would immediately investigate Yuri Vazagashvili's killing.

Although Ivanishvili has no official government position since he resigned in 2013, many Georgians still believe he is the "power behind the throne," influencing the government of his Georgian Dream coalition that still holds power.

A few days later, officials arrested five former police officers and six former Interior Ministry troopers on suspicion of premeditated murder.

At a press conference on February 2, prosecutor Koka Katsitadze said the killings were the result of a personal vendetta of former Tbilisi police official, Irakli Pirtskhalava. According to Katsitadze, police opened fire "upon approaching the vehicle, despite the fact that there were in a crowded area and the people in the vehicle posed no threat to them whatsoever."

He said it was a "preconceived plan" to take revenge because a tip from one of the men in the car, Aleksandre Khubulov, reportedly led to the arrest of Pirtskhalava's brother.

But many are still not satisfied with the new official version, not least because it is unclear why Pirtskhalava would involve so many people in such a public incident if he was merely seeking revenge against one person.

Meanwhile, the cases continue to be used to score political points in the rivalry between Georgian Dream and the opposition United National Movement (ENM), which controlled the government under Saakashvili.

ENM officials say the new official version of the Zurab Vazagashvili killing -- which happened when ENM was in charge -- is intended to distract attention from the Yuri Vazagashvili killing under Georgian Dream's watch. "As soon as they realized they weren't going to be able to conclude the investigation into the Yuri Vazagashvili case, they staged this show in order to cover up their own ineptitude again," says ENM lawmaker Givi Targamadze.

Meanwhile, the public in Georgia is increasingly disenchanted about a government that, more than two years after taking office, seems to still be running against its predecessor instead of setting its own agenda.