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Justice for Vito: a trial into a high-profile hate crime begins in Georgia

Six months after the murder of Georgian human rights defender Vitali Safarov in Tbilisi, two suspects are now on trial.

Yuri Dzhibladze
22 April 2019
Vitali Safarov
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Image: Svitlana Valko

“Of course not,” said Giorgy Sokhadze defiantly in response to a question in Tbilisi city court last week. The judge’s question was clear and direct: “Do you admit your guilt in a premeditated murder, committed by a group, on the grounds of ethnic hatred?”

These are the charges against Sokhadze, 23, and his co-defendant, Avtandil Kandelakishvili, 20. With shaven heads and necks covered in ultra-nationalist tattoos, the two young men seemed determined to challenge the audience at the opening session of the trial into the murder of activist Vitali Safarov in September last year.

Vitali, 25, was a programme coordinator at a respected local NGO, the Centre for Participation and Development, which works to fight intolerance and xenophobia in Georgia. An incredibly warm and caring person, Vitali was an inspiring mentor to the dozens of children whom he taught human rights, inter-cultural dialogue and non-discrimination at summer camps. In a recent interview to Sova News, Vitali’s mother Marina Alanakyan said that children from the summer camps sent him letters saying “We want to be like you”. In his other job as a case manager at the Tbilisi Shelter for human rights defenders, Vitali became a dear friend to the many activists around the world who visit the shelter for rest and rehabilitation.

Taking pride in his Jewish and Yezidi background, Vitali worked all his life to fight xenophobia and violence. But on 30 September 2018 he was brutally murdered in downtown Tbilisi.

Delivering justice for Vitali Safarov’s murder is a serious test for Georgian law enforcement. Human rights activists believe that the authorities have tolerated hate crimes by radical right-wing groups for too long

According to Eka Kobesashvili, Safarov family’s lawyer, a group of three men approached Vitali at a popular cafe and started a heated verbal confrontation about language, ethnicity and patriotism. After this, this group drew him around the corner of the cafe and assaulted him with bladed weapons, making racist statements. As reported by Kobesashvili and the media, all three men were recorded by CCTV cameras immediately before and during the attack. They immediately fled the crime scene. Vitali died from multiple knife wounds before an ambulance could arrive. The investigation has the video footage as evidence.

On the basis of video records and witness testimonies, police apprehended two suspects, Giorgy Sokhadze and Avtandil Kandelakishvili, the same day. The two men have been held in pre-trial detention since then. A third person, who was a minor at the time of the crime, is currently being treated as a witness in the case.

The investigation and trial into Vitali Safarov’s murder is the first time Georgian law enforcement are dealing with an alleged hate crime murder. And proving “ethnic hatred” as a motive, and that the crime was carried out by a group, is not an easy task for the prosecution - and requires a high level of professionalism. It took more than half a year for Georgian investigators to collect evidence and witness statements, as well as to conduct several expert examinations.

According to Agit Mirzoev, head of the Centre for Participation and Development, both suspects are believed to be members of a neo-Nazi group that is known for having attacked foreign citizens and homeless persons in a central Tbilisi neighbourhood. Speaking to Ekho Kavkaza on 16 April, defence counsels stated that neither Kandelakishvili, nor Sokhadze were involved in a neo-Nazi organisation.

Mirzoev says that the suspects’ social network accounts were filled with far-right images and music. Here, according to Mirzoev, Sokhadze and Kandelakishvili paid respect to Adolf Hitler, bragged about cleansing the city of homeless persons, made threats against LGBT persons, and published videos of themselves training with bladed weapons and killing stray dogs. Sokhadze, who is believed to be a leader of the group, used the nickname “Slayer” online. Sokhadze’s social media account has since been deleted after the arrest, but prosecutors and the Centre for Participation and Development have screenshots.

Human rights groups have worked hard to keep the investigation in the public spotlight and encourage Georgian law enforcement to rise to the challenge. Initially the prosecutor’s office inclined to ignore the hate motive and charged only Kandelakishvili with premeditated murder, treating Sokhadze as a passive accomplice and charging him with not reporting the crime.

But public pressure has worked: on 16 April, the prosecution charged both suspects with premeditated murder, committed by a group, on the grounds of ethnic hatred. If convicted, the defendants face sentences of between 13 to 17 years in prison. Neither defendant admitted their guilt.

Speaking to Ekho Kavkaza on 16 April, Kandelakishvili’s lawyer stated that his client was not present at the bar, and insisted on the young man’s innocence. Meanwhile, Sokhadze’s counsel said that his client, as well as Kandelakishvili, had been at the bar and was involved in the conflict, but had nothing to do with the murder of Safarov.

Agit Mirzoev suggests that this mismatch between the two defendants’ positions could be designed to draw out the proceedings - Georgia’s Code of Criminal Procedures states that suspects and defendants can be held in detention for no longer than nine months. With 10 weeks left, activists worry whether the court will be able to review the testimony of several dozen witnesses and all the evidence before the maximum nine-month period of detention expires - if not, the defendants will have to be released.

Furthermore, on 16 April, the defence lawyers asked the judge to dismiss all evidence and witness testimonies presented by the prosecution. They claimed the evidence had been manipulated “in the interest of a certain segment of the population” - clearly referring to members of civil society and others who insist that the murder was a hate crime. The judge rejected the defence’s motion, admitting all evidence and witnesses from both the prosecution and the defence. The evidence will now be presented by the parties and reviewed by the judge during further sessions of the trial, which is expected to last several weeks. The next session is scheduled for 24 April.

Protest outside Tbilisi city courthouse, 16 April | Yuri Dzhibladze. All rights reserved

Delivering justice for Vitali Safarov’s murder is a serious test for Georgian law enforcement. Human rights activists believe that the authorities have tolerated hate crimes by radical right-wing groups for too long. And the trial’s outcome is important in Georgia, a multi-ethnic country with centuries-old traditions of diversity - and where different cultures, languages and faiths co-exist. Sadly, Georgia is also a place where today the extreme right are growing in numbers and strength.

Indeed, the struggle for justice for Vitali has spurred an anti-xenophobia campaign (“Georgia: No Place for Hate”), which is organised by his colleagues in the Centre for Participation and Development and other local NGOs. Right before the beginning of the hearings, over a hundred people gathered in front of the court building for a solidarity demonstration. They held photographs of Vitali and posters calling for a Georgia without hatred and racism, demanding justice and no impunity for the perpetrators. Activists and friends of Vitali wore pins reading “Never forget”, complete with his image.

As he watched the participants of the action, Leri Safarov, Vitali’s father, could not hold back tears. “Only now am I starting to really know my son and understand what he was doing. Please carry on his work.”

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