Two Georgian rights groups have called on the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the murder of a 25-year-old human rights activist outside a bar in Tbilisi as a possibly hate-motivated crime.
The Tbilisi-based Human Rights Centre (HRIDC) and the Centre for Participation and Development (CPD) said the fatal stabbing of Vitali Safarov on 30 September may have been based on ‘xenophobic grounds’.
Safarov, a Georgian raised in Tbilisi who had Jewish and Yazidi roots, worked as a programme manager at the CPD on the group’s ‘tolerance camps’, tackling hate and xenophobia among young people.
He earlier worked for the Tbilisi Shelter Initiative, which provides a safe space for at-risk activists in the region.
Safarov was fatally stabbed in the early morning of 30 September after a fight outside the Warszawa bar, near Tbilisi’s Freedom Square.
Police arrested two suspects, born in 1993 and 1995, on the same morning and said they had retrieved a knife as the murder weapon.
The CPD claimed that based on witnesses they had spoken to, both those arrested were ‘members of a neo-Nazi group’.
Representatives of Safarov’s family said that another weapon, brass knuckles, were also used in the attack.
Authorities charged one suspect with murder and the other with failing to report a crime.
Safarov’s mother, Marina Alanakyan, vowed on Facebook on 7 October to oppose ‘fascist groups’.
‘What led to my son's death? Neglect from Georgian law enforcement agencies to all kinds of fascist groups that are mushrooming and that “preach” an ideology of hate.’
‘If we don't start fighting them, [the number of] victims will rise and at some point, we will have to admit to doing nothing to prevent our children from being killed on the streets.’
‘I decided to start a fight against them, and I think every family, every mother will understand me and will stand by my side.’
‘Murder under aggravating circumstances’
In their statement, the HRIDC and CPD said investigators had labelled the murder with the ‘wrong qualification’.
‘Considering the circumstances, it is apparent that the crime falls under Article 109 of the Criminal Code — Murder under aggravating circumstances due to racial, religious, national or ethnic intolerance.’
‘It is important that the investigation identifies the motive of the murder’, the joint statement read.
In addition to treating the murder as a possible hate crime, the CPD said they wanted the authorities to requalify the case as a murder committed by more than one person.
CPD chairperson Agit Mirzoev told OC Media a third person, who is a minor and is being treated by investigators as a witness, ‘also participated in the murder’.
According to Georgia’s Criminal Code, hate-motivated crimes are punishable by 13–17 years in prison.
Mirzoev told OC Media that police failed to inform the victim’s family in a timely fashion and that they found out about the murder from others.
According to him, Safarov had all his relevant ID documents on him and so tracking down his relatives should have been easy.
Mirzoev told OC Media that about 05:00 Sunday morning, after Warszawa’s closing hours, Safarov was interrupted by one of the suspects, who objected to him speaking Russian to two tourists in front of the Warszawa bar.
[Read on OC Media: Opinion | Labelling Georgia’s far right ‘pro-Russian’ is reductionist and counterproductive]
He said an argument ensued which later turned to a debate over the issues of ‘homeland and Georgian identity’. The dispute later continued in a nearby narrow street, where Mirzoev said the suspects attacked Safarov, who died of his injuries before paramedics arrived.
Mirzoev told OC Media that over the last two years, the staff of nearby bars and those who frequented them had reported the suspects to police several times for their ‘aggressive behaviour’, but the authorities ‘did not react’.
One frequent patron of the bar told OC Media that the suspects had previously bragged in about attacking homeless people near Freedom Square, information Mirzoev also said he had heard from witnesses of the fight.
An acquaintance of the suspects told OC Media that the argument started at Warszawa bar. They said that during the dispute, Safarov commented on tattoos of Nazi symbols visible on both interlocutors.
They also said that the suspects did not belong to any specific far-right group.
Following the statement from the HRIDC and CPD, the Prosecutor’s Office told Georgian news site Netgazeti that they would reclassify the murder as a hate crime if they obtained sufficient evidence.
Prosecutions for hate crimes
In their statement, the HRIDC and CPD noted that ‘activities of xenophobic, fascist groups and hate-mongering remain a serious challenge facing the Georgian state today’.
According to a recent report by the Human Rights Department, a unit at the Interior Ministry created in January, Georgian authorities criminally prosecuted 44 individuals for hate crimes in 2017.
The report said that over the last 9 months, the department had identified hate based motivations in 95 cases, 4 on the grounds of ethnic and racial intolerance.
In May 2017, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia admitted that the Georgian legislation was ‘not very effective [at] fighting against aggressive and fascist-leaning groups’, but vowed to propose legal amendments in parliament if ‘the authorities see it is necessary’. No initiatives have so far followed.