An incident, involving a careless driving, and a consequent altercation between two drivers in one of the streets of Batumi on March 28 grew into a major row between an influential Tbilisi-based legal advocacy and watchdog group Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and the Interior Ministry with the latter being accused of trying to cover up senior police official’s alleged wrongdoing and destroying important evidence.
One of the drivers, involved in the March 28 incident, was chief policeman of the Adjara region, Valerian Telia, and another one was a local employee of GYLA, Roin Partenadze.
The two came across each other while driving at one of the crossroads of Batumi, where their cars narrowly escaped collision; the drivers honked at each other, they then pulled over, came out of their cars and engaged in verbal altercation.
GYLA employee said that he was verbally and physically insulted by the head of Adjara police regional division, the allegation denied by the latter.
As row between the Interior Ministry and GYLA was unfolding, it has also been revealed that chief policeman of Adjara was driving car without having a driving license.
On March 28 GYLA called on the Interior Ministry to probe into actions of its senior employee and to review a video footage from a nearby CCTV camera installed on a privately-owned facility.
GYLA, however, said later on March 28 that police officers destroyed the video footage from that CCTV camera, which was an important evidence to substantiate its claims against the Adjara police chief. On March 28 the Interior Ministry released a video footage from another CCTV camera, providing a long shot view of the scene.
On April 2 the Interior Ministry said that its internal investigations unit looked into the incident and found that Adjara police chief committed no offense against GYLA employee, who, it said, was driving his vehicle under influence of alcohol. The probe results put blame for the incident entirely on GYLA employee, claiming that it was he who engaged in verbal altercation with the police official, insulting him verbally.
The Interior Ministry confirmed that the video footage from the nearby CCTV camera was destroyed, but denied it was done deliberately.
It said that a police officer sent to the scene to obtain the footage failed to do it, because he “damaged video file due to negligence”.
“It was impossible to retrieve the file,” the Interior Ministry said, adding that its employee, who was in charge of obtaining video file, was reprimanded for negligence.
GYLA acknowledged that its employee was driving under “light influence of alcohol” and violated traffic rules, but said that these violations did not give right to the senior police official “to verbally and physically insult” the citizen.
GYLA said that the Interior Ministry’s probe results were “one-sided”, highlighting only violations committed by Partenadze and turning a blind eye on violations committed by Telia.
In its statement on internal probe results, the Interior Ministry sidestepped the fact that Telia was driving without having a license.
Only after it was revealed by GYLA, the Interior Ministry spokesperson had to confirm that Telia had no driving license; she said that Telia got a traffic ticket and was fined.
The Interior Ministry also tried to justify the fact that Telia was driving without license by saying that it was “a matter of urgency” as Adjara police chief was on his way to resolve a serious crime case.
A group of civil society representatives held protest rallies outside the Interior Ministry in Tbilisi and outside local police department in Batumi; they complained that the Interior Ministry was trying to gloss over the incident instead to probe into it thoroughly and objectively; they also said that this case was setting a negative precedent and showing that the new leadership of the Interior Ministry was continuing trend of previous leadership trying to cover up alleged wrongdoings of its employees.
GYLA said on April 3 that it would appeal the chief prosecutor’s office to launch its investigation into the incident and also called on the Interior Ministry to instruct Adjara police chief to undergo drug test.
Interior Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, dismissed complaints of civil society representatives and GYLA as overreaction to the incident, which, as he put it, was blown out of proportion.
He said that Telia was verbally insulted and had “to protect” reputation of police; he, however, also said that he did not like how things developed and Telia probably also overacted, but “he’s a human being too”.
Garibashvili told journalists on April 4, that it was thanks to the efforts of the Adjara police chief there was “stable situation” in the region in respect of crime rate.
He also dismissed calls for Telia to undergo drug test and said that after taking office he and other senior police officials, including Telia, had already undergone such test and there was no need to repeat it.
“I do not know why they want drug test for my employee. Will you like if I demand a drug test of GYLA employees or any other organization or the ministry?” Garibashvili said.