Five former police officials and six servicemen of the Interior Ministry’s special purpose unit have been arrested in connection to death of two men in a police operation in 2006, which the prosecution claims was “premeditated murder”.
Zurab Vazagashvili and Aleksandre Khubulov were shot dead and a third man wounded by the police while driving in car in central Tbilisi on May 2, 2006. Police claimed at the time they had to respond with fire only after shots were fired from inside the car; official version of the investigation at the time was that the three men in the car were on their way for a robbery, which was prevented by the police operation. But alternative ballistic investigation commissioned at the time by the Public Defender’s Office found that no shot had been made from the car. In April 2007 the authorities closed investigation into allegations that police used excessive force. But the Vazagashvili family kept on campaigning for punishment of police officers involved in the operation, accusing authorities of fabricating evidence and covering up the case.
Investigation was reopened after the change of government in late 2012; but father of Zurab Vazagashvili, Yuri Vazagashvili, was publicly complaining about slow progress of the investigation and also accused former interior minister Alxander Tchikaidze of “protecting” some of the police officers, who were involved in the May 2, 2006 operation.
Yuri Vazagashvili, father of one of the men killed in the 2006 operation, died in an explosion that occurred on January 20 at the grave of his son; investigation into Yuri Vazagashvili’s death, which is treated by prosecutor’s office as a premeditated murder, is ongoing. Two days after death of Yuri Vazagashvili, Interior Minister Tchikaidze resigned on January 23.
Among those arrested on February 2 are Irakli Pirtskhalava, who was deputy chief of criminal police in 2006, and several of his former subordinates, as well as former commander of Interior Ministry’s special purpose unit in Tbilisi, Kakha Nakani.
Prosecutor’s office said on February 2, that the May 2, 2006 police operation was planned by Pirtskhalava with the goal to kill Khubulov as he sought “revenge” against Khubulov as the latter tipped off police about Pirtskhalava’s brother, who, as a result, was arrested in April, 2006 on drug-related charges. Prosecutor’s office claimed that official version of the investigation at the time about the three men intending a robbery was false story to justify the operation; it also said that after the operation police officials planted firearms in Vazagashvili’s car.
Irakli Pirtskhalava’s defense lawyer, Davit Khazhalia, said his client denies allegations. “He says that this [allegation] is a fairy tale by the prosecutor’s office,” lawyer said.
In multiple media interviews, before his arrest, Pirtskhalava was insisting on original version of investigation, saying that the police operation was lawful, which aimed at preventing a robbery.
A former criminal police officer, Giorgi Tsaadze, who is among those arrested on February 2, told journalists before his arrest, when he arrived in the prosecutor’s office, that the May 2, 2006 police operation had nothing to do with “premeditated murder”. “It was a special operation; they fired shots at us we fired back,” he said.
A lawmaker from UNM opposition party, Givi Targamadze, said that the arrest of former and acting police officers was a “show” staged by the authorities in order to divert public attention from their failure to investigate murder of Yuri Vazagashvili.