Georgian authorities say Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania died of carbon monoxide poisoning and are treating the case as an accident. Zhvania and a friend, Raul Yusupov, were found dead early this morning in Yusupov's Tbilisi apartment. Rights groups are already questioning the official version and demanding an independent investigation.
Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Interior Minister Ivane (Vano) Merabishvili, who first broke the news of Zhvania's death, identified Yusupov as the deputy governor of Georgia's predominantly ethnic Azeri eastern region of Kvemo Kartli.
Regional officials, however, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Yusupov was working as a junior government official and that he was expected to be appointed deputy governor sometime soon. Reports say Yusupov was a long-time political ally of Zhvania, who brought him into government after the change in political leadership that followed President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation in November 2003.
Addressing reporters at a press conference today, Merabishvili said both men were found dead by state security officers in the middle of the night. "According to our information, Mr. Zhvania arrived at his friend's apartment at about midnight. His security team waited outside for a long time. Since the prime minister was not answering either their telephone calls or the door bell at around 4 or 4:30 a.m., they broke a window and discovered the bodies of Mr. Zhvania and his friend in the apartment.," Merabishvili said.
Merabishvili said an investigation was under way to determine the exact circumstances of the deaths. But he seemed to rule out foul play. "This is a tragic accident. I went to the scene personally. We can say this was probably a gas poisoning accident," he said. "An Iranian-made gas heater was installed in that room. The deaths must have occurred instantly. Mr. Zhvania was sitting in an armchair and the body of his friend was lying in the kitchen. A table was laid with food and drinks and a backgammon board was open."
Levan Chachua, who heads the forensic team charged with examining the bodies, confirmed the accidental version of Zhvania's death: "At the present stage, it is possible to say that [Zhvania's] body does not show any external wounds apart from a scar on the left side of the lower lip. We haven't found any internal wound either. After careful examination of the body, and judging by the marks that cover it, we can determine that he was poisoned with carbon monoxide."
Chachua said the preliminary results of the biochemical analysis -- expected later in the day -- will allow forensic experts to have a better idea of how Zhvania and his friend died.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, who convened an emergency meeting of government ministers, expressed deep sorrow over Zhvania's death. "This is a major blow to our country and to me personally, both as a president and a man, just as it is probably to all of you," he said. "With Zurab Zhvania, Georgia lost a great patriot, who had tirelessly dedicated his entire life to serving his country. I lost my closest friend, my most trusted adviser, and my greatest ally."
Saakashvili said he will temporarily run the government. It was earlier announced that Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze would be the caretaker prime minister.
Government officials quickly dismissed suspicions that Zhvania's death could have been anything but accidental. They also denied any possible link with the bomb attack that left three policemen dead in the central city of Gori on 1 February.
But some are already questioning the official version. Nana Kakabadze, chairwoman of an NGO known as Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, told RFE/RL that her group and other NGOs are demanding that a commission made up of journalists, independent legal and medical experts, and others be set up to supervise the official investigation into Zhvania's death.
"We believe that what happened tonight is so important that the people should know the truth," she said. "[They should know] who stands behind [Zhvania's death]. Therefore, we think it is important to us to participate in that [commission]."
Zakaria Kutsnashvili, a former member of the Georgian parliament who now works as an independent legal expert, told RFE/RL that he also supports an independent investigation. "We believe the investigation should be conducted in a very transparent manner so that everyone should know whether this was an accident, a murder, or a suicide," he said. "Since we can rule out suicide, the investigation must concentrate its efforts so that the second version -- murder -- is definitely ruled out."
Kakabadze said the official version of Zhvania's death was not convincing. "We have some doubts," she said. "For example, Interior Minister Merabishvili said [Zhvania's] bodyguards broke a window [to enter the apartment.] But when journalists went there to inspect the building, they didn't notice anything unusual and saw that all windows were in place."
Georgia's parliamentary opposition today also called upon authorities to make sure that the investigation is conducted transparently.
Manana Nachkebia, a member of the opposition New Rightists-Industrialists parliamentary group, told Georgia's Novosti-Gruziya news agency that Zhvania's death had already spawned widespread speculation and that the authorities should do their utmost to dissipate any doubt.
"Our aim is not to accuse anyone of murder or to hinder the official investigators," Kutsnashvili told RFE/RL. "We just want to know the truth," he said.
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