On July 22, four days after she went missing, 23-year-old Tamar Bachaliashvili was found dead in her car in a remote, rural area of southern Georgia. According to an initial investigation, the cause of death was suicide. She had, according to prosecutors, bought a large quantity of sleeping pills and painkillers and overdosed in the backseat of her car.
In a country where suicide is relatively rare, her family disputes that version of events. They say the circumstances of the computer programmer's death are troubling and have called for a murder investigation and even asked for the involvement of the FBI.
And in Georgia, a country still reeling from mass anti-government and anti-Russian protests in 2019, the case has attracted an unusual amount of public attention, leading to a war of words between the family and prosecutors, a slew of conspiracy theories, and outside actors seeking to use the tragedy for their own political ends.
On September 4, seven weeks after Bachaliashvili's body was found by a local shepherd in the village of Matsevani, in the Tetritskaro municipality, the Prosecutor-General's Office released the results of its preliminary investigation. According to the autopsy report, the amount of drugs found in Bachaliashvili's body far exceeded the minimum lethal amount and was consistent with empty pill bottles found in her car. There were no signs of violence on her body or her clothing.
The Prosecutor-General's Office also released video footage showing Bachaliashvili going to various pharmacies the day before her disappearance to buy over-the-counter medication. Prosecutors said that, before her death, she had Googled "how to buy sleeping pills without a prescription."
The prosecutor's verdict did not satisfy Bachaliashvili's family, who since the beginning of the investigation have been at odds with law enforcement authorities. The family accused the police of dragging their feet. They said that Bachaliashvili's personal Facebook page was deleted and that her phone was accessed without the presence of a lawyer.
What at first might have been noted -- but also glossed over -- as just the tragic death of a young woman assumed a political dimension when, on August 1, the private Formula TV reported that Bachaliashvili had seen videos that showed several high-ranking officials in compromising personal situations. The Formula TV report, which cited an anonymous source in the Interior Ministry close to the investigation, claimed that on the morning of Bachaliashvili's disappearance she had been called on WhatsApp and asked to come to a specific address.
The Formula TV reporter, Davit Kashiashvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that he had personally spoken to the Interior Ministry source and that the information corroborated what they already knew.
"We already had this information from several sources, but before that we could not verify this information. And later, when the source appeared from the investigative body, we decided to make the information public. I cannot reveal more, [but] it is a reliable source," he said.
On August 4, members of Bachaliashvili's family rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi asking for the help of the FBI, despite the limits of the U.S. crime-fighting body's jurisdiction and the scope of the case. The FBI told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on August 11 that it "does not comment or disclose details of any potential communications they may have with international partners."
Much of the investigation -- and resulting public intrigue -- has focused on the nature of Bachaliashvili's work.
A programmer educated in Georgia and France, she worked for a Georgian IT company, ZEG, although the company said that she had resigned a few days before her disappearance. In early August, law enforcement officials searched the house of Tamar Koberidze, ZEG's director, and police seized computer equipment from the company's Tbilisi offices.
The range of ZEG's business activities is still not clear, although a company representative invited on a Georgian talk show said its staff was made up of software engineers and web designers who worked for companies in the United States -- including doing back-end development work for pornography websites. In a statement, the company said: "We work exclusively in the United States and have no contact with the Georgian market; therefore, we do not need PR and we do not have high visibility."
Bachaliashvili's family is continuing to demand answers.
On September 8, Mikheil Ramishvili, the lawyer for the family, released a satellite photo to the media of that he said was dated July 19, the date Bachaliashvili went missing. According to Ramishvili, the photo didn't show the presence of Bachaliashvili's car where it was supposedly located at that time, supporting a theory that the car had been towed into place after she was murdered.
The authenticity of the photo was quickly questioned. Widely discussed online and on social media, amateur cybersleuths said that the photo was actually from 2019; others claimed that it had been digitally manipulated.
On September 9, the company that provided the original satellite photo, Zoom, confirmed that the image had been Photoshopped, tweeting, "Wow, they totally faked that screenshot…. Imagery of buildings/cars will be months or years old."
With the case provoking so much public interest and outcry, it has also become a political football, playing into the highly charged and partisan politics of a country gearing up for crucial parliamentary elections on October 31.
The ruling Georgian Dream party holds three-quarters of the seats in parliament, even though it won just under half of the popular vote in 2016, because of an election format that opposition parties insisted unfairly favored the ruling party.
Frustrations over election reform erupted into protest in November 2019, when thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Tbilisi demanding the resignation of the government. Police used force to quell the demonstrations, which came just months after violent protests against Russian interference engulfed the Georgian capital.
According to MythDetector, a Georgian-based fact-checking site, pro-government actors have attacked Bachaliashvili's family online, highlighting what they claimed was her fragile psychological condition and problems in the family. According to the website, a pro-government media outlet reported on claims that Georgia's opposition United National Movement was helping the family cover up all traces of its role in the tragedy -- presumably to make it easier to blame the government of Georgian Dream and score political points.
And while the case has not attracted much international media attention, it has been reported on by websites with opaque funding, strange editorial scopes, and bogus or nonexistent contact details. For example, London-TV, a website that covers a wide variety of topics-- from a boiler company being shortlisted for an award to a report about customized face masks -- there was a story titled Great Financial Scam, Or A War Of Secret Services In The South Caucasus?
Without evidence, the article, which has the appearance of the type of black PR common in the post-Soviet world, discussed Bachaliashvili's death in relation to a criminal network with ties to the United States. It alleged that Bachaliashvili "saw a fraudulent scheme in action, reported this to the company’s management, and they, in turn, notified a high-ranking client. Then, covertly the girl was removed by this criminal network and eliminated as a dangerous witness."
Another article, in an equally shady publication, the London Daily Post, claims that Bachaliashvili's work was connected to a pornography operation run by a U.S. citizen. On the contact page, the website lists a false address in London, and the U.K. phone number was not recognized when called domestically and from abroad.
Both publications did not answer RFE/RL requests for comment.
After her death, the Prosecutor-General's Office itemized the belongings that were found on Bachaliashvili's person and in her car: wallets, a cosmetic mirror, creams, a gym card, but also a knife, an electroshock weapon, and a face mask with traces of blood.
Depending on where you stand, they are either the everyday personal belongings of a troubled young woman, or crucial clues to a sordid crime.