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Georgian police official pleads guilty to beating and killing 24-year-old

8 January 2020
Zurab Popkhadze in court. Photo: Prosecutor's Office.

Zurab Popkhadze, a high-ranking Georgian police official, pleaded guilty to beating and killing  24-year-old Murad Tsurtsumia, who, according to local media, ‘was stripped naked and left alone in the cold near a cemetery in Tbilisi’. The family of the victim said the deceased also had his eye gouged out. 

It is the latest of a series of major incidents of police brutality in the country. In mid-December, the country was shaken by the news of a teenage boy who took his own life after being interrogated by police for several hours.

According to Prosecutor’s Office, the killing occurred during a brawl at Dampalo Cemetery in Tbilisi on 2 January. The brawl, allegedly involved four people including, Popkhadze, Popkhadze’s friend, Vakhtang Burdzenadze, Murad Tsurtsumia, and Tsurtsumia’s brother. 

On 8 January, the Prosecutor’s office also announced that Vakhtang Burdzenadze was arrested and charged with ‘participating in group violence and intentional injury resulting in death’.

The fight allegedly started because Murad Tsurtsumia and his brother attempted to steal Popkhadze’s car. 

Tsurtsumia’s 21-year-old brother was hospitalised following the confrontation. According to Mtavari Arkhi, he had escaped after the brawl, thinking that his older brother had also got away. 

The family told Mtavari Arkhi that they looked for Tsurtsumia in the cemetery the night of the brawl and that strangers found him the following day. They said he was found frozen several kilometers away from the cemetery. He was hospitalised and died shortly thereafter. 

‘They threw him somewhere. Why didn’t they leave him where he was? We would have found him and maybe he’d be disabled but still alive?’ the mother of the deceased told Mtavari Arkhi on 6 January.

The Prosecutor’s Office has disagreed with the version of events described by Tsurtsumia’s family. The prosecutor said on Tuesday that the Popkhadze and his friend didn’t abandon the deceased but, instead, took him to Popkhadze’s home where they called an ambulance. 

On 7 January Popkhadze pleaded guilty to a charge of ‘battery and intentional injury resulting in death’ in court. He remains in pre-trial detention.

‘I couldn’t imagine that things would turn out this way. All I wanted was for them not to take my car, but it had tragic consequences, which is not what was intended’, Popkhadze said before the court. 

A ‘systemic’ problem

On 8 January, the ‘Change’ activist movement left red handprints at the entrance of Georgian Interior Ministry, saying that Tsurtsumia was ‘a victim of the whole system’. 

The opposition Lelo party held a briefing on Wednesday to call on the State Inspector to take over the investigation. They said the prosecution should not investigate the case, as the defendant worked at the Interior Ministry. 

‘It’s important the society to know that […] the case is being investigated by the Prosecutor’s office, which has proven to be a poor investigator and had covered up for legal authorities’, Ana Natsvlishvili, a member of Lelo’s political council, told reporters. 

Officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party have denied that police brutality is a ‘systemic’ problem. 

‘Everyone who’s involved in this, will be arrested’, Georgian Dream MP and Deputy Spokesperson of the Parliament Gia Volski told reporters. ‘We should not generalise this concrete act of crime as a systemic problem. Unfortunately, people commit crimes in developed democracies and in Georgia as well.’ 

Previous abuse

A month ago, 15-year-old Luka Siradze died in hospital in Tbilisi after attempting to take his own life. Luka Siradze attempted to take his own life hours after being interrogated by police; two officers have so far been suspended and an investigation is underway.

The teenager’s story shook Tbilisi after local rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) claimed the boy attempted to take his own life in Tbilisi’s Dighomi District on 11 December after being subjected to ‘psychological abuse’ by police. 

Siradze passed away in Tbilisi’s Iashvili Children’s Hospital on 17 December.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association cited the boy’s mother as saying that officers from the Didube-Chughureti Police Station in Tbilisi cursed at the boy, threatened him with prison, and threatened to cause ‘problems’ for his older brother if he did not confess to making graffiti at his school.