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Interior Ministry Gripped by Murder Scandal
/ 28 Feb.'06 / 22:08
Civil Georgia

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was grilled by opposition lawmakers at a parliamentary session over the investigation into the murder case of Sandro Girgvliani. The Minister’s testimony on February 28 seemed so unconvincing for the opposition MPs that they walked out of the Parliament’s chamber without even listening to Merabishvili's speech to the end and demanded that the Minister resigns.

Girgvliani Murder Case

The death of 28-year-old Sandro Girgvliani, head of the United Georgian Bank’s international relations department, became a high-profile murder case after a televised report indicated that several top-level officials from the Interior Ministry, as well as the wife of Vano Merabishvili, could have links to the case.

Girgvliani was found dead on January 28 on the outskirts of Tbilisi with multiple injuries inflicted as a result of physical abuse.

The weekly program "Droeba" (Times) - on the Tbilisi-based Imedi television station - aired on February 12 some details of this murder. The Girgvliani’s murder immediately became a focus of public attention after this report.

According to the report on Imedi television, late on January 27 Sandro Girgvliani, accompanied by a friend - Levan Bukhaidze -, arrived at a café in downtown Tbilisi to meet Girgvliani’s girlfriend, Tamar Maisuradze, who was with Tako Salakaia, wife of the Interior Minister, Data Akhalaia, chief of the constitutional department of the Interior Ministry, Guram Donadze, spokesman of the Interior Ministry and Vasil Sanodze, chief of the general inspection of the Interior Ministry.

After a minor dispute with these people, Sandro Girgvliani and his friend left the scene, but were stuffed into a silver Mercedes-Benz ML Class vehicle and kidnapped by unknown men shortly after they went out of the café and taken to Okrokana, on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Girgvliani’s friend claims that he was able to escape, while Girgvliani’s body was found close to a nearby cemetery the next morning. 

On February 21 Sandro Girgvliani's mother said at a news conference, organized by the human rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, that officials from the Interior Ministry “masterminded my son’s murder.” She demanded an immediate interrogation of those officials from the Interior Ministry who were present at the cafe with Girgvliani.

On February 22 opposition lawmakers from the Democratic Front and New Rights parliamentary factions requested that the Interior Minister appear in the Parliament and brief the MPs over the investigation into the case. They also demanded the resignation of those officials who were allegedly linked to the case.

Interior Minister Merabishvili made his first public statement about the case on February 25 and hinted that he was not yet going to sack any of these officials.

On February 28, parliamentarian from the opposition Conservative Party Zviad Dzidziguri convened a press conference and showed an interview with Girgvliani’s friend Bukhaidze – an eyewitness. The interview was conducted by MP Dzidziguri himself.

In the footage of the interview MP Dzidziguri shows Bukhaidze a picture of a young 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 after they were abducted.

Deputy chief of the constitutional department of the Interior Ministry 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.

“The most important thing with this fact is that the investigators have not shown this picture to Levan Bukhaidze – an eyewitness, which further increases doubts about the investigation process,” MP Zviad Dzidziguri said at a news conference.

The murder case is being investigated by the Interior Ministry, under the monitoring of the General Prosecutor’s Office. But the opposition demands that the case to be investigated by the General Prosecutor’s Office in order to avoid a conflict of interests.

Parliamentary Hearings

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said during parliamentary hearings on February 28 that the investigation has not yet revealed any facts which could trigger the dismissal of those officials who were mentioned in the televised report about the murder case.
 
Merabishvili also made it clear from the very beginning of his speech that the parliamentarians could not receive detailed answers from him.

“I will not be able to answer most of the question which have been asked by you [parliamentarians], as I am afraid to make a statement which might harm the investigation or which might be regarded as pressure on the investigation,” Minister Merabishvili said.

He said that “an intensive investigation” is underway by the Interior Ministry.

“I am sure that this case will be solved in the nearest future and the public will soon be informed about those who committed this horrible murder,” Merabishvili said.

“All of them [the Ministry officials mentioned in the televised report] have been interrogated… None of them are currently suspected. The current evidence available gives no reason to identify any of them as a suspect,” he added.

He also said that the allegations to link the Interior Ministry officials to this murder case are “attempts to discredit the police.”

“There are attempts to link this [case] to my family members as well. This is done deliberately to get on my nerves. Of course I am responsible for anything concerning my family members or my employees” Merabishvili said.

During the parliamentary hearings, which lasted almost two hours, Merabishvili spoke for less than 30 minutes, while rest of the time was used by opposition parliamentarians to ask questions mixed with criticism.

“Do you think the Interior Ministry has the moral right to investigate the case while there are well-based allegations that high-ranking officials from the Interior Ministry could have been linked to this murder case?” MP Koba Davitashvili, the leader of opposition Conservative Party said.

He also said that recently, several high-profile criminal cases were sucessfuly investigated by the Interior Ministry, including the Gori blast  and the murder of Levan Kaladze, brother of Georgian soccer star Kakhi Kaladze. “This shows that if there is political will it is possible to solve criminal cases, but not if there is no political will,” MP Davitashvili said.

The Interior Minister was also questioned about the investigation into an attack against opposition MP Valery Gelashvili, from the Republican Party last July. But Merabishvili said nothing about this case.

Merabishvili was also criticized by the opposition parliamentarians for, as they put it, the high-handed tactics used by the police.

The Interior Minister's speech was not yet over when opposition parliamentarians from the New Rights and Democratic Front walked out from the Parliament’s chamber, followed by MPs from the Republican and Conservative parties, to protest against Vano Merabishvili.

Reactions

During the hearings, Merabishvili received a strong backing from parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party, who were thanking the Interior Ministry for the effective performance of his Ministry.

“The opposition’s walk-out was just a stage show. They are speculating over Girgvliani murder case and they are trying to use it for their own political interests, which is absolutely inadmissible,” MP Givi Targamadze, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security, said.

He also said that the authorities are committed to investigating the case as soon as possible, as it is of vital importance.

Interior Minister Merabishvili told reporters after the hearings that the opposition’s walk-out was “natural, because these people voted against the law on the fight against ‘thieves in law’  [criminal bosses].”

After the hearings, the opposition parliamentarians called for Merabishvili’s resignation.

“It has become clear today that Merabishvili is trying to cover-up criminals sitting in the Interior Ministry. We, the opposition, society, should launch activities directed towards [ensuring the] dismissal of Merabishvili,” MP Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of New Rights party said.

“I think this case will have serious consequences not only for Merabishvili, but for the entire government as well,” MP Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party said.

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