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High-Profile Murder Case Trial Ends, But Questions Remain
Tbilisi, Civil Georgia / 5 Jul.'06 / 21:46

One day before planned announcement of a verdict by the Tbilisi City Court, a key witness into the high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani gave on July 5 a new testimony and pointed finger on Interior Ministry ex-official.

Girgvliani murder case has been high on the country’s political agenda after the televised report alleged in February that some top-level Interior Ministry officials could have been behind the crime. The case triggered the opposition to demand Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s resignation.

Levan Bukhaidze, a friend of Sandro Girgvliani, who was together with the victim on January 28 when the crime occurred, told the court that Oleg Melnikov, a former Interior Ministry official, was among those four persons who have beaten him and his friend Girgvliani in Okrokana, outskirts of Tbilisi.

“I am looking at the person [Mikheil Bibiluri], who is now sitting in the [courtroom’s] cell and who is among four suspects [into the murder case] and I can say for sure that I have not seen him there [at the crime scene]. Today I can say for sure before the court: I recalled the fourth person in Okrokana and I can say for sure, that it was Oleg Melnikov,” Bukhaidze said at the court hearing on July 5.

Currently Gia Alania, ex-chief of the first unit of the Interior Ministry’s Department for Constitutional Security (DCS) and three other officers from the same department, Avtandil Aptsiauri, Aleksandre Gachava and Mikheil Bibiluri are facing charges for deliberately inflicting injuries to the person, which resulted into death of Girgvliani. Prosecutors demanded on July 5 nine-year imprisonment for Alania and eight-year imprisonment for each of the three other suspects.

Melnikov’s personality was in a focus of the attention from the very first day when the news broke out in February that top-level Interior Ministry officials could have been linked to the Sandro Girgvliani murder case.

Melnikov was among those officials who were sitting in a café in downtown Tbilisi overnight on January 27-28: Data Akhalaia, ex-chief of the DCS, Vasil Sanodze, ex-chief of the general inspection of the Interior Ministry (both of them were suspended from the office, as a result of public pressure in March), as well as Guram Donadze, who has resigned from the Interior Ministry spokesman’s position in March and Interior Minister’s wife Tako Salakaia. Tamar Maisuradze, a friend of Sandro Girgvliani, was also at the same table.

Tamar Maisuradze told the court that she has moved to another table when Girgvliani came into the café to talk with him. During the conversation, she said, Girgvliani was speaking emotionally and insulting Guram Donadze, who was sitting at the nearby table. At the court hearing on June 30 Donadze and other former Interior Ministry officials, as well as the Interior Minister’s wife testified that they have not heard conversation between Girgvliani and Maisuradze as music was playing loudly in the café. Maisuradze also told the court that she has returned back on the table where the officials were sitting as Girgvliani was going to leave.

Maisuradze said that Melnikov also left the café immediately after Girgvliani’s departure under the pretext of wanting to buy cigarettes for Tako Salakaia, wife of the Interior Minister. Melnikov returned to café after about 40 minutes, as claimed by Maisuradze.

Shalva Shavgulidze, a lawyer of Girgvliani family, claims that real reason why Melnikov went out of the café was to chase Girgvliani in order “to punish” him, as officials in the café heard Girgvliani insulting Guram Donadze.

This is not the first case when Levan Bukhaidze makes a testimony about Melnikov. On February 28 – a month after the crime occurred - parliamentarian from the opposition Conservative Party Zviad Dzidziguri showed journalists footage of an interview with Bukhaidze. In this interview MP Dzidziguri shows Bukhaidze a picture of a man and asks Bukhaidze to identify this man. Bukhaidze replies that the man in the picture “looks very much like” one of the four men who beat the two friends in Okrokana. “But I am not 100% sure,” he added. Oleg Melnikov was the man in the picture.

But in March, when four suspects were arrested, Levan Bukhaidze failed to identify Oleg Melnikov among four persons in a police lineup. However, Bukhaidze said that his failure to identify Melnikov does not mean that the latter was not among those four persons who beat him and his friend.

Chief of Tbilisi’s Prosecutor Office Giorgi Gviniashvili said on July 5 that although the prosecutors will examine Bukhaidze’s new testimony it can not become a reason for re-investigation of the entire case.

Bukhaidze told reporters on July 5 that he was under “certain pressure” exerted by the prosecutor’s office, which became a reason for his hesitation to directly point a finger at Melnikov from the very beginning.

Also on July 5, lawyer of Girgvliani family summoned at the court trial a new witness Zaal Kutsikishvili, a friend of Girgvliani who also was in the café on that day. Zaal Kutsikishvili has never been questioned by the investigators although some witnesses testified that he also was in the café. Kutsikishvili told the court that he has seen Girgvliani speaking with “someone” at the table where Interior Ministry officials were sitting.

This testimony by Kutsikishvili, according to the Girgvliani family lawyer, has further backed claim that an incident with Girgvliani started inside the café and not outside as claimed by the suspects and prosecutors. According to the investigators an incident between the victim and the suspects was a result of a spontaneous quarrel which took place outside the café and was not ordered by those officials sitting at that time in the café.

Presiding judge in the trial Giorgi Chemia turned down lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze’s appeal to postpone announcement of the final verdict due to new evidences into the case. The judge said that he will announce ruling on July 6.

The judge, as well as prosecutors, has also turned down an appeal by the lawyer of Girgvliani family to publicize record of mobile phone calls made by Interior Minister’s wife and those former Interior Ministry officials who were in the café. After refusals lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze accused presiding judge of bias and demanded his removal.

Shavgulidze said that the court, which, as he put it, is following instructions from the prosecutor’s office, wants to cover up details and evidence of the incident and hurries to announce verdict as soon as possible.

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