The key witness in the trial over the murder of Vitali Safarov in Tbilisi has testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish.
The witness, identified only as Nikoloz Sh, testified on Tuesday that he had been friends with the two defendants and that together they had regularly insulted foreigners and attempted to physically attack them.
Avtandil Kandelakishvili, 21, and Giorgi Sokhadze, 24, are accused of stabbing Safarov to death in the early hours of 30 September after a fight near the Warszawa Bar, on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square.
Safarov, 25, was a Georgian raised in Tbilisi who had Jewish and Yazidi roots. He had worked at a local human rights organisation at 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.
The lawyers of both defendants told OC Media that their clients were innocent. The two were remanded on the morning of the murder and have remained in custody.
‘We insulted foreigners’
According to Radio Tavisupleba, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, which reported from the trial, Nikoloz Sh, who is now 18 but was a minor at the time of Safarov’s murder, witnessed how tension escalated between him and Safarov after he hit Safarov. He described this resulting in the defendants killing him.
He said he first met Kandelakishvili at a gym where they used to work out together. While in the locker room, he said he noticed that Kandelakishvili had Swastika tattoo, which he said Kandelakishvili had said stood for ‘Georgia for Georgians — a patriotic symbol’.
‘We drank beer every now and then and talked about how we Georgians should stand together and insult foreigners. And we did it, we were verbally insulting them. We would go to bars quite often and after we drank, Indians, Turks, Jews, whoever caught our eye, we’d verbally insult them. We did not physically hit them, but we tried’, he said at the trial, adding that sometimes they would go to bars and greet people with the Nazi salute.
According to him, Kandelakishvili introduced him to his friend, Giorgi Sokhadze, who he said was known as ‘Slayer’.
He said that on the night of 29 September, the three went to Warszawa Bar where they met Safarov, who intervened in a conversation between them and a stranger.
‘Safarov said that he was Jewish but still loved Georgia. Then he asked me who I was. After I told him I was “Shano”, he kind of laughed at me. I hit him. Then I saw that Avto [Avtandil Kandelakishvili] swore at him: “You motherfucking Jew”, he said and started stabbing him in the belly. Slayer held [Safarov] and wouldn’t let him go. He had a knuckle-duster on his hand and was yelling, “he killed this motherfucking Jew” ’, Nikoloz said.
According to him, they fled and washed their bloody hands after hiding the knife at a construction site.
When questioned by the defendant’s lawyer, the witness said that ‘Slayer’ had a tattoo as well — the numbers 666, which stood for the sign of the devil. When asked whether he had any tattoos himself, he said he did not, but added that he had wanted to get a Swastika but was afraid of his father.
‘My grandfather was fighting against the fascists in WWII … My father told me a lot about it’, said Nikoloz.
The court will reconvene on 17 May. If convicted they face 13–17 years imprisonment.
The prosecution have qualified the crime as being ethnically motivated, and Safarov’s former employers, the Centre for Participation and Development, said they had received information that both suspects were neo-Nazis.
When asked if the defendants were members of any far-right organisations or whether they had any tattoos that would prove their connection with such groups, the lawyers for both of the defendants said that they had not seen their clients naked and that there were no documents that would prove their clients belonged to far-right groups.
‘Nobody has a document proving that such organisations exist, nobody has studied this. There is no such evidence. If I stand at a Jehovah’s Witnesses rally, does it mean I’m a Jehovah’s Witness?’, Zurab Begiashvili, Kandelakishvili’s lawyer, told OC Media.
Malkhaz Salakaia, Sokhadze’s lawyer, told OC Media the same.
‘There is no documentary evidence in the case materials that [my client is a member of neo-Nazi group]. [The witness] is a young man and he has no idea what Nazism is or what Sokhadze has in common with it’, Salakaia said, before elaborating that the defendant’s affiliation with far-right groups was an assumption.
Eka Kobesashvili, a lawyer for Safarov’s family, told OC Media that all the other witnesses had confirmed that the defendants were affiliated with far-right groups.
‘There is a large amount of evidence, and other witnesses have also confirmed that they had heard from the “Slayer” that he is a fascist and that he told them about his Nazi ideology. One of the witnesses even said that he used to be a member of such an organisation himself, but eventually left the group after realising what it was’, Kobesashvili said.
She added that other witnesses also heard the defendant saying ‘he killed this motherfucking Jew’.
The lawyers of the defendants also questioned the testimony of Nikoloz Sh.
Begiashvili told OC Media that he was ‘a criminal who is being patronised for certain reasons’.
‘We learned that one of his parents is a police officer — either acting or former — and has a huge influence on the law enforcement. His testimonies are contradictory and he said whatever the prosecution wrote for him to say’, Begiashvili said.
Begiashvili questioned the witness’ explanation of how the deceased’s blood got on his boot. According to Nikoloz Sh’s testimony, he got the blood stain on his boot after it dripped from the knife while they hid it after committing the murder.
‘After the biological expertise, they probably couldn’t justify it, so they came up with this stupidity that the blood had dripped from the knife. Who will believe this absurdity?’, Begiashvili told OC Media.
Both Begiashvili and Salakaia refused to disclose to OC Media the details of what happened the night of the murder. They said they would reveal everything in the court.
[Read more about Safarov’s case on OC Media: Court denies bail to two accused of killing rights activist Vitali Safarov]