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Prosecutor's Office Gripped by Witness Death Case
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 3 Apr.'14 / 17:08

GD ruling majority turned down on April 2 UNM’s proposal to launch an ad hoc investigative commission in the Parliament to look into circumstances surrounding last one month of life of a witness, who went missing a day after being questioned by prosecutors and who died on March 24, a week after reappearing.

Instead a special hearing of the parliamentary committee of human rights was held on April 3 during which deputy chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze briefed lawmakers about the case.

A former special task force officer from the Interior Ministry’s department of constitutional security (DCS), Shalva Tatukhashvili, 33, was a witness in a criminal case against his former superior, Data Akhalaia, who was chief of DCS; Akhalaia, who is at large, was charged with a premeditated murder in aggravated circumstances. The case is related to the so called Navtlugi special operation in Tbilisi in which three young men were killed in January, 2006.

Tatukhashvili, according to prosecutors, provided incriminating testimony against his former superior; but Tatukhasvhili’s family and Akhalaia’s defense lawyer, Irakli Zakareishvili, who now also represents Tatukhashvili’s family, say that the testimony was obtained under “psychological pressure” and “torture”, which eventually resulted into death of the witness. The family made public post-mortem examination photos of Tatukhashvili, purportedly showing bodily injuries. Cause of the death is not yet clear as autopsy results are pending.

In an attempt to dispel allegations deputy chief prosecutor, Irakli Shotadze, held a news conference late on April 2 – his first one since taking the post more than four months ago, and his office also released number of CCTV footage, a portion of video recording from Tatukhashvili’s testimony and written statements from some other witnesses, which, prosecutors say, back up their claims that allegations against the prosecutor’s office are groundless.

On February 24 Shalva Tatukhashvili received a phone call from a prosecutor asking him to arrive for questioning in connection to Navtlugi special operation as at the time he was an acting commander of DCS special task force. Accompanied by his two lawyers, Tatukhashvili arrived at Tbilisi prosecutor’s office at about 4pm on the same day. In presence of his two lawyers (while several of his friends and his brother were waiting for him outside the prosecutor’s office), Tatukhashvili, according to prosecutors’ account, provided investigators with a testimony incriminating Data Akhalaia and also asked for entering the witness protection program as he was fearing of retribution from Akhalaia’s family and its associates; prosecutor’s office said that he was included in the program by providing him a safe house and assigning officers to guard him. This version is also supported by the March 27 testimonies of two defense lawyers, who were present at February 24 questioning of Tatukhashvili, and who also said in their testimonies, released by prosecutor’s office on April 2, that there was no pressure whatsoever on the witness.

In a letter to Data Akhalaia’s lawyer Irakli Zakareishvili, dated with February 25, the family asks him to represent its interests instead of those two lawyers, who were present at Tatukhashvili’s questioning. According to the letter, after the questioning, Tatukhashvili was hastily taken by law enforcement officers to an unknown location without allowing the relatives, who spent about eleven hours outside prosecutor’s office waiting for Shalva, to speak with him.

CCTV recordings (which are undated), released by prosecutors, includes entry and exit of Shalva Tatukhashvili and his two lawyers in Tbilisi prosecutor’s office. Recording shows that when Tatukhashvili and his companions (which also include, according to prosecutors, witness protection officers) leave the building, Tatukhashvili speaks for less than thirty seconds with one of his brothers before leaving the site (video footage has no sound).

According to prosecutor’s office Tatukhashvili was taken to a safe house in Tbilisi where he spent the night and next morning he asked his protection officer to transfer him to his family house in Teleti outside Tbilisi to take some of his personal belongings. The family confirms that Shalva arrived in house on February 25 before noon accompanied by two officers who were waiting for him outside.

His two brothers, sister and mother were at home at the time and, according to family’s statement, Shalva told them that he was forced to give a false testimony against Akhalaia under physical and psychological duress. According to accounts of both family and prosecutor’s office, Shalva Tatukhashvili sneaked out of the house without protection officers’ knowledge.

Asked during a press conference on April 2 how a witness under protection program could escape from police officers, who were assigned to him, deputy chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze responded: “Protection is provided based on voluntary principle. With this action [escape] he actually showed that he no longer required protection, as a result special security service could no longer continue this [protection] measure; hence a decision on use of special protection measure for him was revoked.”
    
After Tatukhashvili disappeared on February 25, the family accused the law enforcement agencies for number of times of illegally holding him for the purpose of mounting pressure on him. But prosecutor’s office said on April 2 that it had not been aware about Tatukhashvili’s whereabouts up until March 18 when, according to prosecutors, he was spotted in one of the night clubs in Lilo, Tbilisi outskirts. Prosecutor’s office said that he was taken for further questioning to find out where he was since February 25. This time Tatukhashvili was questioned without presence of a lawyer. According to a testimony released by prosecutor’s office, Tatukhashvili decided to escape because he deemed it to be more secure to hide in a nearby forest rather than to stay in a witness protection program as he feared of Akhalaia family’s connections with the security services.

Prosecutor’s office also released a portion of recorded video testimony, it said was made on March 18 in Tbilisi prosecutor’s office, in which Tatukhashvili says that there was no pressure from prosecutors on him. Few days before prosecutor’s office released this video, Shalva Tatukhashvili’s brother, Giorgi, was saying that he was told by Shalva that he was recorded on video by prosecutors “at gunpoint”. Prosecutor’s office also released CCTV footage, it said was also from March 18, showing Tatukhashvili leaving prosecutor’s office freely.

On March 24 Shalva Tatukhashvili died in his house. Prosecutor’s office said that investigation is ongoing into the death; it said that causes of the death would only be known after autopsy results become available.

Before prosecutor’s office made public some of the evidence in support of its version of events, UNM parliamentary minority group, which has further stepped up its fierce criticism of prosecutor’s office following Tatukhashvili’s death, initiated in the parliament proposal to establish ad hoc investigative commission to look into the allegations that the witness was tortured.

“Setting up of this commission is not our whim,” UNM MP Irma Nadirashvili said during the parliamentary debates on April 2. “That is needed because of the [Tatukhashvili] family, which says that it cannot cooperate with those people in the prosecutor’s office whom the family accuses of being behind the death of Shalva Tatukhashvili.”

“Parliamentary investigative commission is needed because prosecutor’s office will not investigate its own crime,” UNM MP Giorgi Vashadze said.

GD MP Eka Beselia, who chairs parliamentary committee for human rights, said that at this stage when autopsy results are not even available it would be premature to establish the investigative commission. She was the first to speak about official account of events, which was then provided by prosecutor’s office later on April 2.

Before the proposal was put on vote, GD MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili asked UNM lawmakers to delay the vote for at least couple of weeks. He suggested that he and some other GD lawmakers needed more time in order to get more details of the case to then decide whether to support parliamentary investigative commission or not. But UNM put the proposal on vote, citing that even if approved it would only mean giving a formal go-ahead to the commission and a separate vote some time later would be required for actually setting up of the commission. The proposal failed with 28 votes in favor and 7 – against; at least 50 votes were required.

After prosecutor’s office released its evidence, UNM’s immediate reaction was that it was a sign that prosecutor’s office was in “agony.” Data Akhalaia’s lawyer, Irakli Zakareishvili, rejected those materials as compilation of truth and lie in a way to fit prosecutors’ version of events. 

A senior GD lawmaker, Gia Volski, said that after seeing prosecutors’ evidence he now has an impression that Shalva Tatukhashvili was subjected to pressure from Akhalaia’s family and its associates.

Deputy chief prosecutor Irakli Shotadze spoke about the case before lawmakers at a hearing of the parliamentary committee for human rights on April 3. The hearing was dominated by noisy exchange as UNM lawmakers criticizing handling of the case by the prosecutor’s office.

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