In Georgia, six months after the tragic death of journalist, authorities blame drug overdose

Aleksandre Lashkarava, screenshot from DW report on journalist's death.

Georgian authorities have finally released an autopsy report for TV Pirveli journalist and cameraman Aleksandre Lashkarava, 37, known as Lekso to his colleagues, who was found dead in his apartment on July 11 in Tbilisi. Lashkarava was among some 50 journalists who sustained injuries while covering the Tbilisi Pride March on July 5.

The report claims that death was caused by drug overdose, a conclusion questioned by Laskharava's colleagues, government critics, and watchdog organizations. “The day after Lashkarava was found, before the cause of death was fully established, the authorities publicly alleged he had died from a drug overdose, based on what they called ‘interim forensic results’ of a blood test,” said Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia Division at the Human Rights Watch, in an interview with Global Voices.

After the death, authorities took the journalist's body from his home against his family's wishes and prevented them or their lawyer from seeing the body for several hours. Authorities quickly released preliminary conclusions that Laskharava died of a drug overdose, which “[raised] serious questions as to the motives of the authorities, and whether they were trying to manipulate the public opinion, considering that the Georgian Law does not recognize the notion of ‘interim forensic results,'” explained Gogia.

In December last year, Lashkarava's family lawyer, Beka Takalandze confirmed the family was still waiting on autopsy results. The same month, Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Reporters Without Borders office, decried the lack of progress in the investigation as “an alarming situation” and a sign of a “lack of political will.”

It took local authorities another month to release the autopsy results. On January 7, authorities in Georgia concluded that the journalist died of “severe cardiovascular and respiratory failure caused by heroin intoxication,” reported OC Media.

“The 4 of 37 pages of the report released to the press also state that several other drugs were found in Lashkarava’s body,” said OC Media. The same day, local authorities released the autopsy results, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Laskharava's name to its observatory of killed journalists in 2021 — a move the local ruling government severely criticized. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will send the final autopsy report to UNESCO to update the observatory.

Georgian civil society groups are unsurprised that the autopsy report concludes Laskharava died of a drug overdose. When Laskharava was found dead, the state quickly pushed a narrative that he was an addict, and police seized Laskharava's body, despite his family's refusal of a state-led forensic autopsy and examination. “His body was literally snatched by the law enforcements from his house before the arrival of the family. It took over five months for the authorities to publish fragments of the final forensic exam results,” Gogia told Global Voices.

A day after the journalist's body was taken from his home, the director of the interior ministry’s central criminal police department, Mamuka Chelidze, said that a preliminary toxicology report had found traces of a number of drugs in Lashkarava’s system, including the painkillers morphine, codeine, and gabapentin; as well as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance in cannabis; and monoacetylmorphine, one of the active ingredients in heroin. In the same statement, the Ministry of the Interior claimed the authorities had evidence of Lashkarava buying drugs on July 10, in the form of CCTV footage of Laskharava in Ponichala district of the capital, Tbilisi, an area known for its drug activity, according to reporting.

On July 11, thousands of Tbilisi residents gathered outside the parliament building in silent protest to express support for the journalist and the crackdown on independent civil society over the recent months. At least 19 local civil society organizations signed a letter demanding Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri's resignation.

There were no resignations. The only action that did take place was a fine issued against the Ministry of the Interior. Following the released CCTV footage, the State Inspector’s Office, a government agency set up in 2019 tasked with investigating grave crimes by state officials, fined the Ministry GEL 2,000 (approximately USD 640)for violating personal data. The State Inspector Office is now at risk of being closed.

The autopsy report publicized on January 7, claimed that the late journalist's family members were informed about the final autopsy results, a claim the family's lawyer Takalandze rejected. According to OC Media, “Takalandze told OC Media that he and the family had found out about the results from media reports and that no one from either the interior ministry or National Forensic Bureau had contacted him or the family.”

In a tweet, Reporters Without Borders called for the release of a full forensics report and a transparent probe.

Over the course of the last year, Georgia's media environment experienced some serious setbacks according to the most recent Human Rights Watch country report for Georgia.

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