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The Khorava Street Murders: Justice Delayed, Justice Denied

Protest at the Parliament building on 31 May. Photo: Guram Muradov

By Ted Jonas:

As a Georgian-speaking foreigner, married to a Georgian, and having many years’ experience living in this country, I am normally pretty well attuned to the local news. That has not been the case with today’s biggest story: the Khorava Street murders of two schoolboys, the incompetent prosecution of the crime, and the extraordinary public reaction to yesterday’s court verdict, in which neither defendant was convicted of the murder of one of the victims, Davit Saralidze (16). Not only was the public reaction louder than I would have expected, it is broader and deeper, with the most mainstream Georgian citizens – well-known figures from business and centrist political backgrounds — putting “Don’t Kill Me” frames on their Facebook profile pictures and going into the streets to protest. What is happening?

Back to the 1990s?

Last December, a group bullying situation of 11-graders against 9-graders at Tbilisi’s downtown public school number 51 broke out into a street brawl. The 9-graders enlisted older friends and relatives to help them in the final show down, which occurred in a yard on Khorava Street, and Davit Saralidze and another 16 year old, Levan Dadunashvili, were murdered. Both of them were stabbed multiple times. There was a large social reaction to the killing itself. Occurring in the tony Vere neighborhood, which was home to some notorious criminals in the 1990s, the incident stoked the fears of many Georgians that the degenerated conditions of that time were coming back, due to the slacker law enforcement and creeping corruption that many saw characterizing Bidzina Ivanishvili’s rule. In addition, and more fundamentally, many parents saw the murders as indicative of deeply unhealthy conditions in the country’s public schools and society, and demanded action on that front.

For me as both an American and a veteran of 1990s Tbilisi, I have to confess that I did not share this alarm. I come from a country where, in the past 6 months alone, 42 schoolchildren and teachers have been shot to death inside schools by disturbed students and other young people using high-powered weapons. The American heart has become hardened and encrusted against these insane tragedies. The risk of school violence in America is also a major reason that I live in Georgia: a country where the knife murder of two students brings thousands of people out into the streets. That is a much healthier society than the one I come from.

As for the second issue – as a veteran of life in Tbilisi in the 1990s, I could not see the Khorava Street murders as a return to the bad old days. Knifing and shooting of teenagers was happening a lot in Tbilisi back then. The country was in chaos, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Abkhazia conflict when I arrived in 1994. Criminality was pervasive in a way that cannot be compared to the situation in Tbilisi and Georgia today.

I felt that the comparisons of Khorava Street 2017 to Georgia in the 1990s were exaggerated, and politicized exaggerations at that. But just as, by being an American, there was a depth of feeling about the murders of schoolchildren that I could not feel because of the pathology in my country, the Khorava Street murders struck a chord in Georgians about the 1990s that was more credible than I could appreciate; because too much, in fact, remained unchanged in this society at the level of youth, violence, and the public schools.

Justice Reform – Going Nowhere Fast

But that is not what today’s protests are about. Today’s protests are an expression of rage by Georgian society against the unreformed Ministry of Interior, Prosecutor and court system that have continued to interfere in the normal development of democracy and civic life in this country.

That is yet another subterranean social wave that I – and I expect many other ex-patriates living in Georgia – have failed to appreciate. We simply have not realized the depth of disgust that was building in society against the police, the prosecutor and the courts, even though we have seen it tangentially.

Dissatisfaction with the Georgian justice system has shown up in polling by the American organizations NDI and IRI. Respected Georgian reform organizations such as Transparency International, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, and others have focused on it. But many of those NGO critiques have been legalistic and esoteric, even for me as a lawyer. Anna Dolidze, one of the Georgian public and legal figures I respect the most in this country (and not only because she is a fellow Cornellian), has been engaged in recent months in a harsh and public clash with her fellow members of the “High Council of Justice,” the administrative body that oversees the Georgian courts. All of these things were signs: the few available to the reasonably observant foreigner, that something was deeply wrong.

Back in 2012, many of us also did not appreciate what Bidzina Ivanishvili did see: the depth of Georgian resentment and humiliation over the “law and order” campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili and his Justice Minister, Zurab Adeishvili. Thousands of Georgians were unfairly prosecuted on manufactured crimes in what was essentially an extortion racket to fill the budget with funds extracted in “plea bargains,” as well as a terror system for keeping people in line. The “prison scandal” put a match to pent up anger, and the GD won the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Similarly, Khorava Street, and the court verdicts yesterday, have put a match to Georgians’ frustration with the continued lack of reform of the police, the prosecutor and the courts. While all three institutions function reasonably well in mundane cases where the stakes are low, they consistently fail when put under the stress of important matters, whether those be murder cases or big tax claims against business. The social and economic interests that become involved in this little society, where practically everyone is connected by ties of family and friendship, become too much for the institutions to bear in important cases. The intervention of connected people will prevent the proper prosecution of a murder case; the intervention of the state will prevent the fair hearing of a major tax case; the payment of bribes seems to be involved again in the decision of many cases.

No Georgian government in all my years’ experience in this country has succeeded in reforming the police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts, and each one of them has appropriated those institutions for its own use.

In the Shevardnadze era, the justice system was a bazaar; verdicts and investigations were bought and sold. It was vachroba as they say in Georgian: trade. But the state could, and did, also control the outcome in politically important cases. The Saakashvili government eliminated the “vachroba,” at least in its private corruption form, but perfected the state control, nationalizing the “vachroba” in the form of a plea bargain system in which spurious criminal cases were settled by payments to the state budget.

The Georgian Dream, literally elected on the promise of reforming this system, has not only failed to do so, but appropriated it in its own manner, for its own uses, and reflecting its own style of governance, just as the Shevardnadze and Saakashvili era systems reflected theirs. So the Georgian justice system of today is characterized by state control as it was under Saakashvili, though not so heavy handed; and by private influence and corruption, which have crept back into Georgian public life, though not so badly as under Shevardnadze. At least that counts as progress.

But it is not enough to satisfy Georgians today, and that is the message of these protests.

The United National Movement and other political parties connected to the Saakashvili regime capitalizing on the Khorava Street case to demand resignation of the current government is the height of hypocrisy, cynicism and manipulation, given their own, far worse record, on criminal justice generally, and specifically in matters such as the Sandro Gvirgvliani case, in which a young man was murdered by Ministry of Interior officers, the crime was covered up, and the defendants protected at the highest level, including by Saakashvili himself (who eventually pardoned the murderers after they served short prison terms).

But even if we set aside the hypocrisy of parties and politicians of the previous regimes trying to capitalize on a crisis brought by the system they have helped engender, demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation is simply not the answer to the problem at hand.

He would be replaced by another politician, whether by appointment or by elections, who is going to use the courts, the police and the prosecutor in the same way, for the ruling party’s own purposes. By demanding resignation of the Prime Minister, Georgians will be buying the same medicine with which they have been poisoned before.

Time to Face the Truth

The Khorava Street murders and verdict, and the huge public reaction to them, need to be a “Come to Jesus” lesson as we say in America, that the business of reforming the courts, the police and prosecutor can no longer be avoided. Georgians are in the street today to force change on that final frontier which has until now eluded reform: the justice system.

Every recommendation that has been made on the front of legal reform in this country by the Council of Europe and the best and most informed Georgian minds on this subject needs to finally be put in place. No more tweaking the reforms to avoid real change can be allowed. Even more importantly, the representatives of the old system that currently staff the top ranks of the courts — in the High Council of Justice and the Supreme Court — and the Prosecutor’s office, need to be removed. Trustworthy people, who are true reformers, need to be put in all these top judicial and prosecutorial posts. We know who they are: they have been fighting for these changes for years, some from academia, some from the NGO sector, and some as politicians. That is how this government can best do its job, and continue to hold office until the next elections, which is the proper place to put them to the test.

Ted Jonas

Ted Jonas is a lawyer in private practice who has lived in Tbilisi for over 20 years.