Charges have been filed against former interior minister and ex-PM, Vano Merabishvili, in connection to Sandro Girgvliani murder case with prosecutors accusing him of series of premeditated actions aimed at covering up evidence in an attempt to obstruct establishment of truth into Girgvliani murder case.
In connection to this case Merabishvili, who is held in pretrial detention pending trial into unrelated multiple criminal charges, has been charged under part two of article 332 of the criminal code, involving abuse of office committed by a holder of the political office. Charges under this part of the code carry either fine or imprisonment from two to five years.
An order on filing charges against Merabishvili, issued by chief prosecutor of the capital city Tbilisi Maia Mtsariashvili says that evidence gathered in the course of investigation, which among others also include testimonies from 81 witnesses, provided sufficient evidentiary basis for bringing charges against the former interior minister.
Merabishvili was the Interior Minister in January, 2006 when a 28-year-old Sandro Girgvliani was kidnapped and killed after being, as the European Court of Human Rights put it, “wantonly ill-treated” by the Interior Ministry officers in Tbilisi outskirts.
At the time the case turned into the key political issue, reemerging frequently in country’s political life, because of persisting allegations that the official investigation at the time covered up possible links of Interior Ministry senior officials, as well as of wife of then Interior Minister to this murder case. According to these allegations the perpetrators acted on orders given by their superiors from the Interior Ministry who were present in a café in downtown Tbilisi, where the victim, shortly before being abducted, insulted one of the officials present in the café together with Merabishvili’s wife Tako Salakaia. Others present in the café on the same table with Salakaia were Guram Donadze, then interior ministry’s spokesman; Data Akhalaia, who at the time was head of the Department of Constitutional Security; Vasil Sanodze, then head of the Interior Ministry’s unit for internal investigations and one more official from the same ministry Oleg Melnikov.
The murder case came into the public spotlight in mid-February, 2006 after the Imedi TV reported about it, suggesting that senior Interior Ministry officials and the minister’s wife could have been involved. On March 6, 2006 then Interior Minister Merabishvili announced that this murder case was resolved. “Investigation into this case was a matter of my personal prestige and the prestige of the Interior Ministry,” he said at the time.
Four officers from the Interior Ministry’s department for constitutional security were arrested on March 6, 2006, who were subsequently found guilty of inflicting bodily injuries that resulted into Girgvliani’s death and sentenced to imprisonment; but their prison terms were halved as a result of the presidential pardon and in addition a pre-term release mechanism was applied to them through which the four former officers were released in September, 2009.
Contrary to claims of the Girgvliani family, which has been campaigning tirelessly throughout these years insisting that the murder was coordinated with other senior officials from the Interior Ministry, the official version of the investigation at the time, which was upheld by the court, was that the murder was a result of a dispute between the victim and four officers and that other Interior Ministry officials, who were present in the café, had nothing to do with the crime.
The case was taken by the Girgvliani family to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which delivered its verdict in April, 2011.
Although a 69-page judgment of the ECHR said that there was “an insufficient evidentiary basis” to make “such a far-reaching conclusion” that the kidnapping and mistreatment of Girgvliani, which caused his death, was coordinated with senior officials from the Interior Ministry, ECHR also found that the official investigation into the case “manifestly lacked” independence. ECHR said that despite its “repeated requests” the Georgian government did not present in its entirety one-hour portion of footage recorded by the surveillance camera to detect the movement of cars on the section of the road leading to Okrokana in Tbilisi outskirts where the crime was committed. The Court said that submission of that evidence in its entirety was relevant as it could have corroborated or, on the contrary, refuted the allegations that other Interior Ministry officials were also involved in the crime.
“The Court is struck by how the different branches of State power… acted in concert in preventing justice from being done in this gruesome homicide case,” the judgment reads. “The Court deplores that… the authorities turned a blind eye to the applicants’ credible allegation of complicity between some of the persons from the Interior Minister’s wife’s group in the café and the direct perpetrators of the crime.”
After the Georgian Dream coalition came into power, new leadership in the prosecutor’s office launched re-investigating the case.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office said on June 24 the probe had concluded that “reprisal” against Sandro Girgvliani, which resulted into his death, “was carried out upon orders” from Data Akhalaia, then head of the Constitutional Security Department, who was present in the café together with other officials and Merabishvili’s wife.
The prosecutor’s office said that apart of four former officers who were convicted as perpetrators, “at least two other” Interior Ministry officers were also directly involved in the crime.
“Then Georgian Interior Minister, who was thoroughly aware of every single detail of the crime from the very first day when it was committed, schemed together with other officials illegal, fabricated proceedings and deliberately obstructed the course of justice into the case for the purpose of diverting his wife Tako Merabishvili-Salakaia and other associates (Data Akhalaia, Oleg Melnikov and others) from being [linked] to this crime,” the prosecutor’s office said.
It said that abuse of office charges against Merabishvili were stemming from series of his “intentional actions”, involving covering up and fabricating evidence and carrying out sham investigation; providing financial inducement to convicted four former officers in exchange of keeping silence over actual events of the case. According to prosecutor’s office each were paid with USD 100,000 and in addition their imprisonment was a mere formality as they received privileged treatment and were even often allowed to leave prison to spend time with families and even at work in the Interior Ministry.
The order on filing charges against Merabishvili, which was issued by Tbilisi’s chief prosecutor, lists 81 witnesses, who were questioned in the course of the ongoing investigation; the list, among others, also includes three out of four former interior ministry officers who were convicted for the Girgvliani murder case, as well as former Interior Ministry spokesperson Guram Donadze; former head of the ministry’s internal investigations unit Vasil Sanodze and Nino Burjanadze, who at the time was speaker of the parliament.
Witness testimonies are not publicly available, but judging from the text of inducement, Burjanadze apparently told the investigators that few days after the crime was committed, the then parliament speaker met Merabishvili and “demanded” from his to bring before justice then head of the Constitutional Security Department, Data Akhalaia, and others involved in the crimes. Merabishvili, prosecutor’s order reads, rejected this demand to bring all the perpetrators before the justice because it would have led to his personal political responsibility, involving resignation from the interior minister’s post.
Vano Merabishvili’s defense lawyer, Giorgi Chiviashvili, said that his client believed that like other criminal charges, the new one was also “politically motivated”. The lawyers said that for Merabishvili these allegations were ludicrous, because charges “are very general” lacking details and based “completely on assumptions”. He also said that he had not yet seen actual files of the case, including texts of witness testimonies.
Meanwhile also on June 24, a written statement was released on behalf of Merabishvili in connection to an issue unrelated to the Girgvliani murder case. The statement is about torture videos, which emerged recently, showing inhuman treatment of two detainees by the law enforcement officers, reportedly in 2011. In the statement Merabishvili offers his apology “to every person who became victim of inhuman treatment by the police when I was the [Interior] Minister.”
“Until now I always thought that I would have been proud for the reforms carried out during my tenure as the Interior Minister; for turning the most corrupt and unpopular police in the region into the most popular and non-corrupt police, which was done together with my friends and thousands of policemen,” the statement reads. “But if recent reports about policemen involved in the torture of people are confirmed, it will cast doubt over my successes. I want to say that nothing of this kind should have taken place under my tenure as the Minister. Everyone involved in this case should be strictly punished. I want to apologize to every persons, who became victim of inhuman treatment by the police when I was the [Interior] Minister.”