Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 47

The Georgian Interior Ministry has announced that it has solved the killing of Sandro Girgvliani, the 28-year-old chief of the international relations division at the United Georgian Bank. On March 6, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told a news conference that four officers from the Interior Ministry’s Department for Constitutional Security (DCS) had been arrested and charged with Girgvliani’s murder, based on evidence, including mobile-phone records that reveal their whereabouts on the date in question. Merabishvili stressed that an accurate “investigation into this case was a matter of my personal prestige and the prestige of the Interior Ministry.”

Girgvliani’s brutal murder on January 27 had led to public outrage (see EDM March 1), and the authorities were trying to calm the tense situation. On February 6 the Interior Ministry press service aired video footage on television showing Levan Bukhaidze, a friend of Girgvliani who was with him on the day of the crime, identifying the four accused men as the assailants. The footage showed Gia Alania, head of the DCS, telling interrogators about a quarrel that he and his colleagues had with Girgvliani outside a restaurant in Tbilisi after Girgvliani cursed at Guram Donadze, chief of the ministry’s press service and public relations department. Alania said Girgvliani was extremely “aggressive” and spoiling for a fight with the policemen.

Meanwhile, Imedi television, which conducted its own investigation based on eyewitness testimonies, convincingly proved that Girgvliani had indeed had a verbal dispute, but not with the arrested police officers. Imedi claims that Girgvliani argued with high-ranking employees of the Interior Ministry and President Mikheil Saakashvili’s close associates Donadze; David Akhalaya, chief of the Department for Constitutional Security; his deputy, Oleg Melnikov; Vasil Sanodze, chief of the Interior Ministry’s General Inspectorate; and Tamar Merabishvili, wife of Interior Minister Merabishvili. The dispute, according to eyewitnesses, took place inside the restaurant. When Girgvliani and Bukhaidze were leaving the restaurant, the accused policemen forcibly pushed the two men into a car, took them to a forest in the outskirts of Tbilisi, and severely beat them. Bukhaidze managed to escape, while Girgvliani died from severe wounds. In a televised interview Akhalaya, one of the men suspected of orchestrating Girgvliani’s murder, claimed that his staff has “tirelessly worked” to uncover Girgvliani’s murderers.

Yesterday, March 8, Tbilisi City Court sentenced the four accused police officers to three months in jail while awaiting trial. They are Gia Alania, head of a division at the Interior Ministry’s Department of Constitutional Security, and three officers from the division: Avtandil Aptsiauri, Alexander Gachava, and Micheil Bibiluri (Kavkaz Press, March 8).

However, neither opposition forces nor Girgvliani’s relatives accept the government’s version of the murder. They argue that the arrested four are only scapegoats intended to shield the people who actually ordered the murder. Indeed, the sudden appearance of these new suspects has raised many unanswered questions. Zviad Dzidziguri, a parliamentarian from the opposition Conservative Party, conducted his own investigation. He interviewed Bukhaidze and showed him a photo of Oleg Melnikov, whom Bukhaidze vaguely recognized as the man participating in the attack.

The opposition parties, civic organizations, and Girgvliani’s family have demanded an investigation led by the prosecutor-general, because they doubt impartiality of the Interior Ministry, as its employees are apparently involved in the case. The Interior Ministry and especially Donadze had tried to downplay the case by disseminating misleading information ascribing the murder to criminal gangs.

Knowledgeable sources say that Saakashvili had a closed-door meeting with Merabishvili and Akhalaya, reportedly to discuss possible ways out of the sensitive situation. The opposition has seized the case as an opportunity to press for Merabishvili’s resignation. Merabishvili also had a closed-door consultation with parliamentary chair Nino Burjanadze.

The case has turned into a political battle, leading to a new standoff between the opposition and the government. The opposition has claimed victory with the arrest of the Interior Ministry officers. They said the officers were taken into custody thanks to popular pressure. But the opposition also wants the people who ordered the murder to be behind bars. On March 7 several opposition parties and youth organizations staged rallies demanding punishment of the actual masterminds of Girgvliani’s murder and calling for the resignation of Merabishvili for “keeping killers” in his ministry. But Merabishvili has strong backing from the parliamentary faction of the ruling party, which declared that attacks on Merabishvili, whom they consider to be Georgia’s most successful interior minister, would jeopardize “stability” — most likely meaning “stability” for the ruling party, not the country.

However, it appears that the authorities decided instead to sacrifice one more associate to pacify the public and opposition. Merabishvili fired Donadze, but only for “misconduct” with the media. Despite this move, the public still expects the actual masterminds of the murder to be identified and duly punished. The high-handed behavior of Georgian police on various pretexts has become highly unpopular. Georgia’s former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, who opened the headquarters of her political party “Georgia’s Way” on February 7, said that an impartial investigation of Girgvliani’s murder is far more important than the opposition-staged political upheaval over the new regulations requiring cash registers in public marketplaces (see EDM, March 1). Zourabichvili complained that the Georgians have “lost a culture of dialogue.”

Meanwhile Girgvliani’s case is stark evidence that Saakashvili and his party are being forced to be more responsive to public opinion, which they have dismissed in most cases. The public outcry over Girgvliani’s murder has driven Saakashvili’s government into a corner. Some representatives from Georgia’s civic sector hold up Kazakhstan as an example of how to deal with political murders. The chief of the Kazakh National Security Committee resigned after an officer from the committee’s Arystan special-task squad were found to have been involved in the assassination of opposition party leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev (see EDM, February 23).

(24 Saati, March 2, 3, 7; Civil Georgia, March 2-7; TV Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, March 5,6,7; Kavkaz Press, March 6,7)