Tbilisi City Court has sentenced two men to 15 years in jail for the group murder of human rights activist Vitali Safarov. The court ruled that the murder of Safarov, who was Jewish, was not a hate-motivated crime.
Safarov, a 25-years-old Georgian raised in Tbilisi who had Jewish and Yazidi roots, was stabbed to death in the early hours of 30 September after a fight near the Warszawa Bar on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square.
Safarov had worked at several local rights groups including at the Centre for Participation and Development, at the group’s ‘tolerance camps’, tackling hate and xenophobia among young people.
The two men convicted of his killing, Avtandil Kandelakishvili, 21, and Giorgi Sokhadze, 24, were charged with a group hate crime. Both Safarov’s family and witnesses of the murder alleged they shared a Nazi ideology and that the two had Swastika tattoos.
When asked if their clients had such tattoos or were members of any far-right group, their lawyers told OC Media they had not seen their clients naked and that there were no documents that would prove their clients belonged to far-right groups.
[Read more about what lawyers said about defendants’ alleged Nazi ideology on OC Media: Key witness testifies that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish]
Speaking after the verdict on Thursday, Safarov’s mother, Marina Alanakyan, demanded the authorities explain what the motivation behind her son’s killing was. ‘Tell me what did they kill my son for? There must be a cause, right? I don’t understand it’, she said.
The family’s lawyer, Eka Kobesashvili, vowed to appeal the court’s decision not to qualify the murder as hate-motivated.
‘The witnesses said clearly that Safarov was killed for one reason only, that he was Jewish. They said Vitali was not involved in the brawl at all and that he triggered aggression by saying that he was Jewish and worked at a non-governmental organisation’, she said.
She added that the judge was ‘unable to set a precedent and so handed responsibility over to the Court of Appeals’.
Avtandil Kandelakishvili’s lawyer, Zurab Begiashvili, said the court had ‘saved Georgia from shame’.
‘The court proved today that people don’t get killed in Georgia for their race, that there is no intolerance in Georgia in this respect, and that everyone, regardless of their nationality, religion, race, or skin colour can live here safely’, he said.
He added that they were going to appeal the part of the ruling which said it was a group murder.
‘We insulted foreigners’
The key witness in the trial testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish.
The witness, identified only as Nikoloz Sh, testified in May that he had been friends with the two defendants and that together they had regularly insulted foreigners and attempted to physically attack them.
The lawyers of both defendants told OC Media that their clients were innocent.
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.