Nearly four months after the sudden death of Zurab Zhvania, relatives of Georgia's former prime minister have announced that they suspect foul play in the incident. A private investigation conducted by Zhvania's family members revealed key discrepancies between official Georgian statements on the cause of Zhvania's death and the findings from a US Federal Bureau of Investigation report.
In a May 30 interview with EurasiaNet, Giorgi Zhvania, the late prime minister's younger brother, stated that his doubts about the official version of events began right after his brother's February 6 funeral. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"In the beginning, it was just a whisper of a doubt," Zhvania said. "But as I went further and further with my [investigation], my suspicions became so grounded that there is already no doubt it was murder."
Giorgi Zhvania and the late prime minister's widow, Nino Kadgidze, have recently appeared on numerous television shows to challenge the findings of the official investigation, which stated that a malfunctioning apartment gas heater caused the February 3 death of Zurab Zhvania and a political associate, Raul Usupov, from carbon monoxide poisoning. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On May 29, the late prime minister's spouse and brother met with President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and Prosecutor General Zurab Adeishvili to outline their concerns. According to Giorgi Zhvania, Saakashvili agreed that the official investigation contained inconsistencies and promised to call in European experts to review the investigation's findings. Nonetheless, the General Prosecutor's office maintains that Zhvania's death was accidental.
The opposition has seized on the meetings and public appearances to press for a more open investigation into the late prime minister's death. On May 31, Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili, a member of the opposition, demanded that Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Adeishvili answer questions from parliament on Zhvania's death. Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze rejected a call for a parliamentary commission to be formed as "impossible," the television station Rustavi-2 reported.
Giorgi Zhvania, however, states that he does not rule out the possibility that the person behind his brother's death is in the government. "I do not suspect the president," he said. "[But] I won't be surprised if in several years it turns out to be a highly placed official."
The multiple inconsistencies found in the conclusions of the Georgian investigation and the FBI report help fuel Giorgi Zhvania's suspicion.
Zhvania said that his suspicions were first aroused by the fact that no fingerprints were found in the apartment in which his brother and Usupov were discovered dead. Cigarette butts found in the apartment also failed to tally with the late prime minister's smoking habits, his brother said. "Zurab had a very specific way of smoking. He always smoked one half of a cigarette; he never smoked to the end," Zhvania said.
Rather than grinding out cigarettes in an ash tray, Zhvania, an inveterate chain smoker, would use a twisting motion that led to a smoother butt, his brother explained. Although some butts were found at the scene that matched the prime minister's favorite brand, the only cigarette remains that matched his smoking style were found at the bottom of a full trashcan, he explained.
Discrepancies also surround the role played by the apartment's gas heater in causing the death of Zhvania and Usupov. During its own investigation into Zhvania's death, the FBI measured the amount of carbon monoxide allegedly released by the apartment's gas heater on the night of the incident. An English-language copy of the FBI report given to Zhvania and shown to EurasiaNet states that at no time did the level of carbon monoxide in the apartment reach a level considered lethal. Only one of the four meters that the FBI used to determine carbon monoxide levels registered a dangerous concentration of the gas in the air. But that meter was placed near the street-level entrance, where, according to the report, passing cars could account for the higher levels.
Meanwhile, the official Georgian translation of the FBI states that carbon monoxide levels registered well above the lethal level. Blood analysis done by both US and Georgian investigators placed the level of carboxyhemoglobin in both bodies at over 70 percent.
Another discrepancy concerns the level of oxygen in the apartment, another potential factor in Zhvania's death, according to Georgian investigators. International standards specify that the level of oxygen in a room must fall to 10 percent before it can be classified as likely to induce death. However, during the course of its investigation, the FBI registered oxygen levels in the room as falling to 18.4 percent well above the level considered insufficient for lungs to function normally.
Giorgi Zhvania said that he has received no explanation from Georgian and FBI experts about these incongruities. The office of Georgia's prosecutor general explained that the Georgian translation of the FBI report given to Giorgi Zhvania was a "working" version only. The FBI announced on April 1 that their test results corresponded with the findings of Georgian investigators. Representatives of the FBI in Tbilisi could not be reached for comment.
The timing of the gas leak has also added to concerns about the propriety of the investigation. Giorgi Zhvania said that his brother's bodyguards told him that they had switched off the apartment's gas heater after entering the apartment at about 4am and hearing a "whispering sound" from the heater. Yet Tbilgazi, the city gas company, has stated that gas to the Saburtalo District, where the apartment is located, had been switched off as early as 2:55 am.
Giorgi Zhvania stated that the bodyguard's accounts of the incident are themselves subject to controversy. Based on telephone records, calls were made from two telephone numbers held in Zhvania's name on the day of the prime minister's death one, belonging to cell phone provider Magti, the other to the company GeoCell, Giorgi Zhvania said. Most of the calls made to Usupov on February 3 originated from the Magti number, a number that Zhvania said his brother had acquired a few years ago but had later given up. Mikheil Dzadzamia, the prime minister's bodyguard on the night of his death, has given conflicting accounts about whether he ever used the Magti phone, Giorgi Zhvania claimed.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili administration officials are taking steps to assuage public concerns about the investigation. In a May 29 interview with Rustavi-2, State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze, one of Zhvania's closest political allies, defended the government's conduct of the case.
"If Zhvania's friends who work in the government do not appear on TV, it does not mean that . . . we don't want the truth to be revealed," Baramidze said.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.