The authorities in Georgia have failed to produce the results of an autopsy into the death of TV Pirveli camera operator Aleksandre (Lekso) Lashkarava, who passed away in July after being beaten by far-right groups during a homophobic riot in Tbilisi.
Beka Takalandze, a lawyer representing Lashkarava’s family, confirmed to OC Media that they were still awaiting the results.
This weekend marked five months since Lashkarava’s death. He passed away at home on 11 July just six days after sustaining multiple facial fractures and a concussion during the homophobic riot a week earlier.
Georgia’s first Queer Pride march had been planned for 5 July, however, the day quickly descended into chaos as thousands of far-right counterprotesters took to the streets and attacked journalists and civil society groups. At least 53 media professionals were injured in targeted attacks during the ensuing violence, with the authorities facing criticism for their apparent inaction.
[Read on OC Media: Journalists recall day of terror in Tbilisi]
The autopsy is being led by the Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau, however, the family has also insisted that an independent medical examiner, Aleksandre Gejadze, take part in the process.
Gejadze told OC Media that no one from the Samkharauli Forensics Bureau had contacted him about the autopsy for five months.
‘I have no new information. I am waiting for data from the Samkharauli Bureau’, he said.
Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Office of Reporters Without Borders, decried the lack of progress in the investigation as ‘an alarming situation’.
‘Not only Lashkarava’s autopsy is not ready five months later, but also the investigations into the unprecedented organised violence targeting more than 50 journalists are stalling’, Cavelier told OC Media.
‘This ineffectiveness of the investigative services, in contrast to other types of cases, clearly shows a lack of political will.’
‘Impunity for crimes against journalists is intolerable: press freedom is a pillar of democracy, it verifies the existence of all other freedoms.’
‘Local and international NGOs including [Reporters Without Borders], as well as EU member states, promptly reacted to these brutal attacks, which represents a major setback for press freedom in Georgia.’
‘The Public Defender of Georgia provided evidence. And the Minister of Interior promised full investigations into these attacks and Lashkavara's death. But less than 30 people have been arrested for having carried the violence, none for organising the violence, and we're still waiting for the autopsy.’
‘The failure of the Georgian government to meet its international obligations cannot remain without consequences. The authorities have a duty to protect journalists while they are doing their job. Once again, we urge them to face their responsibility, to conduct an in-depth, impartial and transparent investigation of the circumstances of Lashkavara's death and of the attacks, and to prosecute all those responsible for acts of violence and for their organisation’, Cavelier added.
The Government deflects
Following the violence on 5 July and Lashkarava’s subsequent death, the Georgian Government has faced a barrage of criticism from local and international watchdogs as well as Western countries.
Despite the attacks on journalists beginning in the morning of 5 July, the Interior Ministry did not deploy a significant police presence in the capital throughout the day. In several cases, the officers who were present were slow to intervene as violence broke out in front of them.
The Government has responded to the criticism by suggesting that Lashkarava’s death was due to a drug overdose, rather than a result of the injuries he sustained.
On, 12 July, the director of the Interior Ministry’s Central Criminal Police Department, Mamuka Chelidze, presented a ‘interim report’ into his death, and claimed to have obtained witness testimony that Lashkarava and a friend bought drugs and ‘consumed drugs in a forested area’.
Chelidze also said that a toxicology report had found traces of a number of drugs in Lashkarava’s system, including painkillers morphine, codeine, and gabapentin, as well as tetrahydrocannabinol, the active substance in cannabis, and monoacetylmorphine, one of the active ingredients in heroin.
The family has said that Lashkarava was prescribed several strong painkillers due to the injuries he sustained.
Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, questioned the government’s motives in releasing an interim report suggesting Lashkarava died of an overdose while taking so long to conduct a full autopsy.
‘The question is, what was the purpose of the so-called “interim report” published so hastily if not to influence public opinion?’, Gogia told OC Media.
‘It is important that the authorities effectively investigate the exact causes of [Lashkarava’s] death and bring all perpetrators to justice’, he added.
The Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau told OC Media that the examination was ‘nearing completion’, and that the results would be presented to the authorities ‘as soon as possible’.