Justice delayed is justice denied: Georgia’s 9 year delay in investigating murder of two men by police officers was in breach of the Convention

18 July 2019

The applicants in the case are Mr Yuri Vazagashvili and Ms Tsiala Shanava, parents of Z.V., a 22-year-old man, shot in his car during a police operation in the centre of Tbilisi in 2006. ZV was killed when more than 70 shots were  fired in the direction of his car, at close range, and despite the fact that the passengers had not fired at the police officers or posed a threat to them. On 18 July 2019, the European Court held that the Georgian court’s prosecution and conviction of the officers was not an adequate remedy for Z.V.’s murder, and found violations of the Georgian State’s obligations to respect the right to life (Article 2 ECHR). The applicants were represented by EHRAC and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association.

What happened in Tbilisi on 2 May 2006?

On 2 May 2006, Z.V. was driving in a car with two of his friends, when they were ambushed by police officers in a busy part of the city. A person in civilian clothes armed with a pistol approached  the car and attempted to open the front door, and, upon failing to do so, started shooting at the passengers with no prior warning. After Z.V., the driver, attempted to flee in a car and crashed, five policemen, armed with machine guns started firing at the vehicle. Two shots were fired from a close range at Z.V. and the passenger in the front seat, killing them. More than 70 shots were fired in total, with about 40 bullets hitting the car. The third passenger of the car had multiple wounds, but survived.

How was the investigation conducted?

Nine years after the events in question, the Georgian courts convicted the five police officers of murder, malfeasance, fabrication of evidence, and unlawful arrest, having found that the sole aim of the operation was to assassinate the passengers of Z.V.’s car. The officers were given less than the maximum sentences, which were then reduced by way of amnesty.

Aside from the length of time it took to prosecute the officers, the  investigation culminating in their conviction was flawed, for example: it involved  the Ministry of Interior official who had participated in the operation; the forensic examination was directly contradicted by the witness evidence; and the applicants were denied an opportunity to effectively participate in the proceedings, having not been granted victim status.

Partly driven by the lack of adequate action by the Georgian authorities, Z.V.’s father, and the first applicant in the case before the European Court, took it upon himself to advocate for justice for his son’s killing, which in the Court’s words “became one of the most well-known and scandalous examples of police abuse”.  In January 2015, Z.V.’s father was murdered,  by an improvised explosive device found (by the Georgian courts) to have been planted on Z.V.’s grave by a police officer.

Findings of the European  Court

The European Court concluded, on the basis of the Georgian court’s conviction of the officers, that it was “crystal clear” the killing of Z.V. by State agents was attributable to the Georgian State under Article 2 ECHR.

The Court also held  that the Georgian investigation into Z.V’s murder

“manifestly lacked the requisite thoroughness, objectivity and, as was subsequently revealed by the results of the reopened investigation, integrity.”

Even though the investigation ultimately led to in the officers’ conviction, the nine-year delay meant that this did not constitute sufficient redress for the applicants as “justice delayed is often justice denied”. Further, the Court found that the sentencing of the perpetrators was not adequate for ensuring an effective investigation into killings by state agents, underling that

the Court expects States to be all the more stringent when punishing their own law-enforcement officers for the commission of such serious life‑endangering crimes than they are with ordinary offenders, because what is at stake is not only the issue of the individual criminal-law liability of the perpetrators but also the State’s duty to combat the sense of impunity the offenders may consider they enjoy by virtue of their very office, and to maintain public confidence in and respect for the law-enforcement system”.

Accordingly, the Court also found a breach of the Georgian State’s procedural obligations under Article 2 ECHR.

The Court awarded the surviving applicant, Z.V.’s mother, 50 000 EUR in non-pecuniary damages, in view of her “intense distress and frustration” on account of her son’s murder by State agents and “the failure to conduct a timely investigation leading to the adequate punishment of all those responsible”.