Various Georgian media outlets, along with opposition politicians, continue to question whether the public is receiving an accurate picture of the circumstances surrounding the February 3 incident. A preliminary investigation concluded that a leak from a faultily installed heater killed Zhvania as he was visiting a political acquaintance, Raul Usupov, who also succumbed to carbon monoxide. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Usupov's father, Yashir, has helped stir controversy by challenging the official version of events. In an interview with the Inter-Press agency on February 7, Yashir Usupov claimed that, contrary to official assertions, his son had not rented the apartment in which Zhvania and the younger Usupov had been found dead.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Maia Nikoleishvili, an independent medical examiner and former chief investigator at the Ministry of Justice, expressed the opinion that serious procedural flaws had occurred in the probe. For one, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's televised statement the morning of February 3 that Zhvania's death had been caused by asphyxiation from an improperly installed gas heater was premature, Nikoleishvili maintained. "When that sort of a person [a government minister] makes a statement like that, it is clear that the investigation is going to follow that version, to catch up with the facts as it were."
Officials maintain that Zhvania died between 4 and 4:30 am on February 3 in the Tbilisi apartment of the 25-year-old Usupov, the recently appointed deputy governor of the Kvemo Kartli region. At a February 3 press conference, Nugzar Mkhedze, a representative from the city gas company Tbilgazi called in to investigate Usupov's heater, confirmed that the unit had released carbon-monoxide into the apartment rather than out onto the street. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to Nikoleishvili, the current explanation for Zhvania's death fails to answer several important questions. People exposed to carbon monoxide routinely experience a series of symptoms, ranging from a headache to lethargy before falling asleep, she stated. Without a high level of alcohol in the blood --or some other foreign substance both men should have felt the side affects. "If there is a high level of alcohol, then you don't feel the symptoms as strongly, but they weren't asleep [at the time] or anything. And since it looks like they were playing backgammon, they should have felt something," Nikoleishvili said. All previous reported deaths in Georgia from carbon monoxide poisoning have occurred when the victims were asleep, she added.
In Georgia, death by carbon monoxide poisoning has taken on special significance this winter. With no central heating system, Georgians often rely on small gas heaters, many of them made in Iran or Turkey. During December 2004, six people died from carbon monoxide asphyxiation in Georgia and 51 individuals were poisoned, Minister of Labor, Health and Social Welfare Vladimir Chipashvili told the television news station Rustavi-2.
Another issue dogging the Zhvania investigation is the length of time the prime minister was in Usupov's apartment before the carbon monoxide poisoning took effect. On February 5, Deputy General Prosecutor Giorgi Janashia announced that Zhvania had received a call on his cell phone at approximately 1:20am, about an hour and a half after he had entered the apartment, and some three hours before his official time of death. At present, no information has been released as to how long the prime minister and Usupov were exposed to carbon monoxide. A representative from the Ministry of Health stated that anywhere from half-hour to two hours could be sufficient to poison a person. "It depends on the health of the person," the Health Ministry official, Jimali Goghia, said.
Shifting information on the percentage of carboxihemoglobin in the blood of Zhvania and Usupov has helped raise further questions. Carboxihemoglobin forms when carbon monoxide enters the blood stream, preventing hemoglobin from carrying oxygen. On February 3, Deputy Justice Minister Levan Samkharauli told reporters that preliminary results indicated that Zhvania's blood contained a 40 percent carboxihemoglobin rate. One day later, Samkharauli revised that figure, telling a news conference that Zhvania's blood contained 60.6 percent carboxihemoglobin and Usupov's blood 73.9 percent. Death occurs when carboxihemoglobin reaches at least 60 percent.
But rather than focus on carbon monoxide alone, Nikoleishvili stated, officials should also have been testing for other poisonous substances in Zhvania's and Usupov's blood. "Investigations are not carried out in that manner," she said. "You have to look at all possibilities and then, [make a decision] from what has already been excluded."
The heater installed in Usupov's apartment was reportedly an Iranian-made model called Nikala. Gas heater retailers say that the units have practically disappeared from the city since Zhvania's death, but add that there is nothing inherently dangerous about the heaters or difficult about their installation. "The heater has instructions," said Dato Chimalishvili, a salesman at Tbilisi's Iliava hardware market. "I recommend that people read the instructions or hire a professional . . . [but] [t]here are a lot of people who don't know how to install it and then bad things happen."
Officials have yet to locate the individual who installed Usupov's heater, but media interviews with his landlady have stated that he was an odd-jobs man, hired off the street.
Statements about the date of the heater's installation have also varied. Tbilgazi claims that the unit was installed just days before the incident. Other reports suggested the heater was installed three months ago. Usupov reportedly only recently rented the apartment, and had spent the night prior to his death with his family in another apartment he was renting in a village outside of Tbilisi.
Public attention is also focusing on how Zhvania's bodyguards actually entered Usupov's flat when the prime minister failed to respond to his cell phone. Official statements indicate that entrance was made through the flat's window, but pictures of the window made public by the media show that the window remains intact, with only its grating removed.
The apparently contradictory information has prompted one human rights activist to call for an independent commission to investigate the incident. "We believe that what happened
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tbilisi.