High-Profile Murder Still a Source of a Political Standoff
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 7 Mar.'06 / 00:48

Officials have already indicated that the murder of Sandro Girgvliani was the result of a dispute between the victim and an officer from the Interior Ministry’s Department of Constitutional Security (DCS), which has nothing to do with higher-level officials from the Interior Ministry as alleged by the opposition and the victim’s family.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili announced on March 6 that the Girgvliani murder case has been solved, after police arrested four officers from the Interior Ministry’s Department of Constitutional Security on suspicion of committing this crime on January 27. The case came into the spotlight after a televised report by Imedi television on February 12 indicated that top officials from the Interior Ministry, as well as the wife of Vano Merabishvili, could have been linked to this murder. The report prompted the opposition to demand Merabishvili’s resignation.

“Gia Alania, chief of the [first] unit of the Constitutional Security Department and three other officers from the same department: Avtandil Aptsiauri, Aleksandre Gachava and Mikheil Bibiluri were arrested. We have evidence proving that they have committed this crime. They are now being interrogated,” Merabishvili said without specifying what the motive behind this murder was.

He also said that the police traced the suspects’ movements on the day of crime through the mobile phone calls made by them. But he did not specify to whom these phone calls were made.

“Investigation into this case was a matter of my personal prestige and the prestige of the Interior Ministry,” Merabishvili said.
He also said that the General Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating the case.

“We had information that the criminals were employees of the [Interior Ministry]… That is why we were very careful and were refraining from unveiling the details of the investigation,” Merabishvili added.
In video footage disseminated to local television stations by the Interior Ministry’s press office, Gia Alania tells investigators after he was arrested that he met with Girgvliani while the latter was coming out of a café in downtown Tbilisi late on January 27. Alania says that he and his colleagues who were accompanying him overheard Girgvliani verbally insult Guram Donadze, Spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which irritated Alania and triggered a dispute between him and Girgvliani.

Guram Donadze, together with Tako Salakaia, wife of Interior Minister Merabishvili, Data Akhalaia, chief of the Department of Constitutional Security, his deputy Oleg Melnikov and Vasil Sanodze, chief of the general inspection of the Interior Ministry, were inside the café. A televised report on the Imedi television on February 12 indicated that Girgvliani and his friend Levan Bukhaidze had a dispute with this group of people before leaving the café.

Gia Alania continued in his testimony that Girgvliani was “aggressive,” which further escalated the dispute between the two men. Afterwards they decided to leave the scene and continue their conversation in a quieter place and went to Okrokana, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, where a fist-fight erupted, Alania said. The dead body of Girgvliani was found in Okrokana the next morning. Bukhaidze was able to escape.

But this testimony by Alania might come into conflict with earlier statements made by other witnesses of the incident. Tamar Maisuradze, identified as the girlfriend of Girgvliani, was inside the café sitting at a same table with the Interior Ministry officials and Tako Salakaia.

In an interview with Imedi television aired on February 12 Maisuradze recalls that Girgvliani left the café immediately after a minor dispute with the persons sitting with her, as Girgvliani insulted Guram Donadze. She also said that shortly after Girgvliani went out, Oleg Melnikov, deputy chief of DCS, who was also at the table, left the café as well under the pretext of wanting to buy cigarettes.

In a different interview with Imedi television witness Levan Bukhaidze denies that he and Girgvliani had any dispute outside the café, as claimed by Gia Alania.

On February 28, parliamentarian from the opposition Conservative Party Zviad Dzidziguri showed footage of a seperate interview Bukhaidze. The interview was conducted by MP Dzidziguri himself. In this interview MP Dzidziguri shows Bukhaidze a picture of a man and asks Bukhaidze to identify this man. Bukhaidze replies that the man in the picture “looks very much like” one of the four people who beat the two friends in Okrokana. Oleg Melnikov was the man in the picture.

“I am not 100% sure, but I can say that he looks very much like him,” Levan Bukhaidze said in an interview with the opposition parliamentarian.

Opposition MPs from the New Rights and Democratic Front parliamentary faction convened a news conference shortly after the Interior Minister announced the capture of these suspects. They said that arrest of Interior Ministry officials, who are suspected in murder, “is a good precedent.”

“But the major part of the investigation is still ahead. Not only should those who committed the crime be held responsible, but also those who ordered it,” MP Koba Davitashvili of the Democratic Front parliamentary faction said.

“Vano Merabishvili was forced to acknowledge that he has killers in his Ministry after pressure from society. But this is only the first step. The next step should be an answer to the question of who ordered this crime,” MP Koka Guntsadze of the New Rights said. 

Opposition parliamentarians have again called for Merabishvili’s resignation and stated that society should not let the Interior Ministry “cover up” for those high officials who are linked to the murder case.

The mother of Sandro Girgvliani also said after the Interior Minister’s announcement that she is now expecting the arrest of those who masterminded the crime. She said that those people whom her son had a dispute with the night he was killed are behind this murder. But parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party have downplayed the allegations that the crime was masterminded.

“This demand to capture those who masterminded [this crime] is absolutely groundless, because there is no evidence proving that the crime was commissioned by someone,” MP Nika Gvaramia said.

“This was a spontaneous murder and I can not understand how a spontaneous murder can be ordered by someone,” MP Nino Kalandadze, deputy chairperson of the parliamentary committee for legal issues, said.

Chief of the Constitutional Security Service Data Akhalaia also indicated on March 6 that the murder of Girgvliani was a result of a personal conflict between the victim and his colleague. 

“This was the most important case for us, a matter of our honor. And I want to say that any official, any policeman, who commits a crime, will be punished more severely than any other ordinary citizen. This grave consequence which resulted from a personal conflict should be condemned and punished severely,” Data Akhalaia told reporters.

It is clear that the opposition will further use this high-profile murder case as a tool to continue its pressure on President Saakashvili to dismiss Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is a key figure in Georgian politics.

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