Friday, March 1, 2002

The State Department yesterday confirmed that a former Georgian diplomat who was serving a seven- to 21-year sentence for killing a 16-year-old Kensington girl in a 1997 drunken-driving collision has been released from prison in Tblisi, Georgia.
Gueorgui Makharadze was released Wednesday after serving about 3 years of his sentence, State Department officials said. He had been serving his sentence for involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in Tblisi after having been transferred there from the United States in 2000.
On Jan. 3, 1997, Mr. Makharadze, then the Republic of Georgia’s No. 2 diplomat in the United States, plowed his Ford Taurus into a row of cars near Dupont Circle, killing Jovine Waltrick and injuring four other persons. Officials said he had been drinking heavily and was driving 90 mph at the time of the crash.
“It’s a slap in the face to Jovine’s memory and a slap in the face to her family,” said attorney Mark S. Zaid, who represented the girl’s mother in seeking reparations from Georgia.
“His transfer back to Georgia was appropriate and according to international law. But the host country once they accept their national still has to abide by the minimum-sentence requirements imposed by the D.C. Superior Court.”
But Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said Georgia officials have “acted in more than good faith.”
“They preserved the integrity of the sentence that was given to Makharadze in the United States,” he said.
“It’s not like when he was transferred over there, they immediately let him out of prison,” Mr. Gansler said. “Had he remained in prison in the United States, he would have become parole eligible by now. And one could argue that he would have gotten parole because he had no previous criminal record.”
Member’s of Jovine’s family were unavailable for comment yesterday. The girl’s mother, stepfather and two brothers moved to Brazil shortly after Mr. Makharadze was convicted, Mr. Zaid said.
Meanwhile, Russian officials said Mr. Makharadze’s release was the result of diplomatic bargaining between officials in Georgia and the United States, which is placing troops in the former Soviet republic as part of the international war against terrorism.
Sergei Shishkaryov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee of Russia’s State Duma, told the Russian Interfax News Agency that the sending of U.S. Special Forces to Georgia and the release of Mr. Makharadze are not mere coincidences.
“I am absolutely confident that these events are interrelated,” Mr. Shishkaryov said, adding that having U.S. military in Georgia is a frightening event for Russia.
Georgia a country of 5.4 million people that borders Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan declared its independence and succeeded from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Associated Press reported late Wednesday that Mr. Makharadze’s release was the result of an appeal signed early this week by 160 of the Georgian parliament’s 235 members. He had been ill in a prison hospital for several months.
The U.S. Justice Department yesterday said Mr. Makharadze should have served more time.
“We’re of the view that he should have served his full seven-year sentence,” said Justice Department spokesman Bryan A. Sierra. “This is a tragic case, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families.”
Officials with the Georgia Embassy in Washington said it was “unfair” to suggest that Mr. Makharadze’s release was the result of diplomatic bargaining.
“I know that Georgia law was followed to the ‘T’ in this case,” said Robert S. Bennett, senior independent counsel to the Georgian government. “Nothing was done to circumvent the law, and Mr. Makharadze served a long time in jail in Georgia under conditions that were far more severe than what’s in U.S. prisons.”
He added that in allowing the United States to charge and convict Mr. Makharadze five years ago, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had to make the risky political move of waiving the man’s diplomatic immunity.
“The government of Georgia has acted in a very honorable and principled way in this entire matter,” Mr. Bennett said. “Waiving Mr. Makharadze’s immunity was a brave political act on the part of President Shevardnadze.”
Mr. Zaid said that when he learned of Mr. Makharadze’s release, he almost immediately thought it must have been politically motivated.
“It was a major accomplishment to have even prosecuted him in the United States,” Mr. Zaid said. “His diplomatic immunity had been waived because of political reasons involving an oil pipline in Georgia, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if his release was linked to our troop involvement there.”
“Not only was his incarceration motivated, but his release was as well,” he said. “These are decisions between countries, not individuals.”
At the time of the Dupont Circle accident, Mr. Makharadze was returning from a business dinner at Yanni’s Greek Taverna, where officials said he drank to excess. Prosecutors said his leased Taurus was traveling more than three times the posted 25 mph speed limit.
Jovine’s mother, Viviane Wagner, lobbied to have Mr. Makharadze charged and tried in America, and the Georgia government took the unexpected step of waiving his diplomatic immunity.
Mr. Makharadze, who was considered a rising star in Georgia politics, was second in command at the republic’s embassy on New Hampshire Avenue in Northwest. He pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court.

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