Organs missing from body of Georgian citizen who died under questionable circumstances in South Ossetia
Twenty-two days ago the Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau performed an autopsy on the remains of Archil Tatunashvili. However, the results of the autopsy are still unknown. Furthermore, the bureau has yet to say when the results will be made public. JAMnews tried to clarify why the results are so long in coming. A trusted confidential source told JAMnews that Tatunashvili’s body was handed over without any organs including the brain.
“This has made ascertaining the reason behind his death incredibly difficult,” our source said.
The information received from this confidential source has not been confirmed or denied by either the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia or by the Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau.
“Unfortunately, I cannot comment on this information. At this stage of the investigation, I don’t know. None of our experts will present information on this topic until the investigation has been completed. All details must be clarified by the organisation that ordered the investigation, in this case the prosecutor’s office,” said Eka Chumburidze, head of the Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau’s public relations service.
“The Ministry of Internal Affairs is handling the case – you should ask them for information. We are not answering questions at the moment in the interests of the investigation,” was the reply from the press service of the Prosecutor’s Office.
The National Forensics Bureau of Georgia is handling the autopsy case of Archil Tatunashvili. His body was sent there after Georgia received it from Tskhinvali.
Twenty-two days have past since his body was handed over, but no information regarding the investigation has been brought forth.
“There are no time limits for the investigation, because this is a process during which new questions may arise which would require additional investigations,” Chumburidze said.
The Prosecutor’s Office has also not provided any details surrounding the case.
According to information provided by JAMnews’ source, Tatunashvili’s organs were removed from his body, including his heart and brain, before the body was handed over to Georgia.
It is possible that his organs were removed at a previous autopsy which was conducted in Russia. During a forensic autopsy, the cranial, chest and abdominal cavities are opened. The procedure entails taking tissue samples from the organs, after which the organs are generally placed back in the body.
Our source says that in Tatunashvili’s case, this was not done.
“It is almost impossible now for the investigation to ascertain objectively the reason behind his death,” our source said. “Tskhinvali claims that Tatunashvili died of heart failure, but Georgian experts will not be able to verify this because they do not have this organ in their possession. There is so little material that it is practically impossible to conclude whether or not he sustained, while alive, damage to his internal organs [as a result of being beaten]. I don’t know how the investigation will be able to handle this task.”
The assertion that Tatunashvili’s body was handed over for an autopsy with ‘an insufficient amount of material’ is confirmed by Empatia – the International Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Violence.
In a statement released on 12 April, the organisation said: “On 20 March this year, the body of Archil Tatunashvili was handed over to Georgia without enough material to conduct a full autopsy which has made ascertaining the reason behind his death more difficult, and which gives reason to believe that this was an attempt to obstruct the conducting of a complete autopsy.”
Empatia became involved in the Tatunashvili case after being ordered by the Prosecutor’s Office to do so, and had legal access to his remains.
Georgian citizens Archil Tatunashvili, Levan Kutashvili and Iosep Pavliashvili were detained on 22 February 2018 by law-enforcement officers from the de-facto authorities of South Ossetia. The next day, Tatunashvili died in Tskhinvali under unclear circumstances. The Ossetian side released a version of events claiming that 35-year-old Tatunashvili ‘fell down some stairs on 23 February in a Tskhinvali detention facility and died in a Tskhinvali hospital as a result of heart failure’.
Neither Georgia nor Tatunashvili’s family believes in this version of events. Georgia suspects that Tatunashvili’s death was not accidental. The suspicions are indirectly supported by the fact that the Ossetian side refused to hand over Tatunashvili’s body for almost an entire month.
Two autopsies were conducted on Tatunashvili’s remains – both in Russia and in Georgia. South Ossetia claims that the Russian autopsy confirmed that Tatunashvili did indeed die of heart failure.
The results of the autopsy done in Russia were given to Georgia along with Tatunashvili’s body. This is confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which transferred the remains from Tskhinvali to Georgia.
The press officer of the ICRC, Sofia Elizbarashvili, said that the results of Russia’s autopsy, in addition to other materials, were handed over to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia. She further said that the ICRC only handled technical issues related to transferring the body and that what was written in the autopsy was not made known.
Forensic expert Irakli Toidze from Empatia was present at the autopsy conducted by the Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau. The organisation was the only party that was well-informed on the Tatunashvili case and who was willing to talk with JAMnews’ journalists.
During the autopsy at which Toidze was present, the exterior of the body was examined, x-rays were taken and tissue samples were taken for lab studies.
It is still unknown what kind of autopsy was performed, given that the organs were not present in Tatunashvili’s body. Empatia did not comment on this issue, even though samples were taken from the skin, teeth, bone marrow, nails and hair of Tatunashvili’s body. The results, the number of tests and their nature have not yet been made public.
Empatia representatives who saw Tatunashvili’s body late at night on 21 March say that traces of torture were visible on his body. The centre has not provided any further information.
The head of Empatia, Mariam Jishkariani, said that the centre has extensive experience in such investigations and that lab results generally do not take as long as they have in the case of Tatunashvili.
“Moreover, the current data indicates that there was not much material to work with,” said Mariam Jishkariani.
She says that the centre requested the results of Russia’s autopsy from the National Forensics Bureau, but they were told that the Prosecutor’s Office had not yet received a Georgian translation of the document.
The National Forensics Bureau did not clarify what laboratory tests had been performed nor why they have taken over twenty days. Jishkariani further said that Empatia was willing to wait one more week for the results of the National Forensics Bureau. Should the information fail to appear, the centre will request the right to perform its own laboratory studies and autopsy and will present its own preliminary findings.
She said there is much work to be done in order to arrive at a decisive verdict, for which there is much information lacking, such as the place and time of death and the circumstances surrounding it, in addition to witness testimonies and other significant materials that do not exist in the Tatunashvili case.
“The prosecutor is in possession of very few facts and information,” said Jishkariani. She also said that the information provided to Empatia by the Prosecutor’s Office was murky and unclear.
The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs refrained from answering the questions posed by JAMnews journalists concerning the Tatunashvili case.
“In the interests of the investigation we cannot say anything,” said Anano Barabadze, the employee at the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who is responsible for providing information on the Tatunashvili case.
The Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs is conducting an investigation into Tatunashvili’s case according to Articles 108 of the Criminal Codex for murder, punishable by a term in prison for 7-15 years, and article 143 for unlawful imprisonment with a prison term of 2-4 years.
Whether foreign experts are also participating in the investigation and whether they will be invited to do so remains unknown.