Prosecutor’s Office releases details surrounding witness’ death

Shalva Tatukhashvili, 33, was found dead at his house on March 24, 2014., 03 Apr 2014 - 22:30, Tbilisi,Georgia

Controversy surrounding the death of a witness, who went missing a day after being questioned by prosecutors and was later found dead, failed to be resolved as authorities noisily debated the incident today.

All parties agreed the witness, who died on March 24 – a week after reappearing – was under pressure but they could not agree on where the pressure originated.

The Parliament’s Human Right Protection Committee was set to discuss the case today but it failed as the meeting, attended by Parliamentary majority, minority and Deputy Chief Prosecutor, was too noisy. The opponents did not let each other speak and continually interrupted each other, so the discussion was postponed to a later date.

The man who died was 33-year-old Shalva Tatukhashvili. He was a former Special Task Force officer with the Interior Ministry’s Department of Constitutional Security (DCS), and was a witness in a criminal case against his former superior, Data Akhalaia, the DCS chief.

Akhalaia is wanted by Georgian police and has been named wanted on Interpol's wanted list. He has been charged with premeditated murder in aggravated circumstances. The case was related to the so-called Navtlugi bus terminal special operation in Tbilisi, where three young men were killed in January, 2006.

Tatukhashvili was summoned to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office to be interrogated as a witness on February 24. The Office claimed he provided incriminating testimony against his former superior.

However Irakli Zakareishvili, Akhalaia’s defense lawyer and who now also represents Tatukhashvili’s family, said the witness’ testimony was obtained under "psychological pressure” and "torture”, which eventually resulted in his death.

Yesterday, after observing the high public interest in the case, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office publicly announced details of the criminal proceedings into the investigation into Tatukhashvili’s death.

The Office released CCTV footage, a portion of video recorded from Tatukhashvili’s testimony and written statements from other witnesses, which, Prosecutors said, backed up their claims that allegations against the Prosecutor’s office were groundless.

In yesterday’s statement by the Prosecutor’s Office, it claimed on February 24 an Office investigator contacted Tatukhashvili to inform him he would be interrogated as a witness in relation to the Navtlugi special operation criminal case.

At 4pm the same day, Tatukhashvili, his brother, two defense counsels and friends arrived at the Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office.

In the presence of his two lawyers, Tatukhashvili provided investigators with a testimony incriminating Akhalaia, and asked to enter a witness protection program, as he said he was afraid of possible retribution from Akhalaia’s family and associates.

The Prosecutors said they provided Tatukhashvili with a safe house and assigned officers to guard him. Tatukhashvili was taken from the Prosecutor’s Office directly to that house.

CCTV footage released by the Office showed Tatukhashvili had a 30 second conversation with his brother, who was waiting for him outside the Office while Tatukhahsvili was being questioned inside.

The prosecutors claimed on February 25, Tatukhashvili requested bodyguards to transport him to his family house to pick up some of his belongings. The Office said he disappeared from this address under obscure circumstances while officers waited for him outside.

In response to this, Tatukhashvili’s family said all the windows on the first floor of their home were latticed, so Tatukhashvili would be unable to leave the premise without exiting through the door where the bodyguards kept watch.

In addition, Parliamentary minority members found it illogical why Tatukhashvili would have wanted to escape from the guards who were assigned to protect him at his request.

Yesterday, when asked at a press conference how a witness in a protection program could escape from police watch assigned to supervise 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 to use a special protection measure for him was revoked.”

From February 25 to March 18, Tatukhashvili’s whereabouts was unknown, the Office claimed. However his family accused law enforcement agencies for illegally holding him numerous times for the purpose of pressuring him.

On March 18, prosecutors claimed Tatukhashvili was spotted in a night club in Lilo, in the outskirts of Tbilisi. The Office said he was taken in for further questioning to determine where he had been since February 25.

This time Tatukhashvili was questioned without a lawyer being present. According to the testimony released by the Prosecutor’s Office, Tatukhashvili wanted to escape because he believed it was safer to hide in a nearby forest rather than to stay in a witness protection program, as he feared Akhalaia family’s had connections with the security service.

After questioning, Tatukhashvili was released, prosecutors said. Tatukhahsvili’s family did not believe this and claimed this was the day he was tortured by police.

To clear up allegations, the Prosecutor’s Office released a portion of CCTV footage showing Tatukhashvili leaving the office freely.

"Having finished the interrogation, the video tape from the surveillance camera of the building of Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office depicts the witness leaving the building [and he is] absolutely safe,” the Office said.

"The witness, being closely related to the investigator and prosecutor, gives way to them and politely enables them to pass the doors of the building. The Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Georgia refers to this fact because of allegations of family members of Akhalaia and the defense counsels of Tatukhashvili’s family regarding the torture of the late Shalva Tatukhashvili on the same day.

"The fact reflected in the video tape proves a different outcome. Specifically, if Tatukhashvili were tortured, he would be unable to move independently and moreover, he would not have close and polite relations with the investigator,” the Office claimed.

Meanwhile, members of the Parliamentary minority, as well as Akhalaia’s and Tatukhashvili’s families, argued the footage was not dated so it could have been taken another day.

After Tatukhashvili left the Office, he went directly to the house of his spouse, the Office claimed.

The Prosecutor’s Office said the cause of Tatukhashvili’s death, on March 24 at his house, was not yet clear as the results of the forensic examination were pending.

After the Prosecutor’s Office released its evidence, former ruling United National Movement party members immediately reacted and said this was a sign the Prosecutor’s Office was in "agony.”

Lawyer Zakareishvili rejected those materials as truth and said it was a lie to fit the prosecutors’ version of events.

A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker, Gia Volski, said after seeing the prosecutors’ evidence, he gained the impression that Tatukhashvili was subject to pressure from Akhalaia’s family and his associates.

Today, the Human Rights Committee members had to answer questions that were left unanswered by the prosecutor but the discussion was stopped. Both sides blamed this on each other.

The opposition Parliament members said the prosecutor had no answers and this was why the meeting did not continue, while the ruling party members claimed the prosecutor was not given time to answer.