Aleksandre “Lekso” Lashkarava, a camera operator with the independent Georgian broadcaster TV Pirveli, was found dead at his home in Tbilisi, the capital, on the morning of July 11, 2021, six days after being severely beaten by anti-LGBT demonstrators, according to multiple news reports and a statement by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia.
Nika Simonishvili, then chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), an independent legal nongovernmental organization representing Lashkarava’s family, told CPJ by phone in August 2022 that Lashkarava’s family lawyers “lack trust” in the autopsy because authorities refused to allow international experts to participate, and because they believed authorities had politicized the case.
The police investigation into the journalist’s death remained ongoing as of August 2023, the GYLA’s new chairperson, Nona Kurdovanidze, told CPJ by messaging app.
Lashkarava, 37, was one of dozens of journalists injured on July 5, 2021, when protesters demonstrating against a planned LGBT Pride rally attacked members of the press covering the event, as CPJ documented.
In an interview following the incident, Lashkarava told the BBC that the TV Pirveli team was reporting from a LGBT rights organization’s office when the building was stormed by protesters. Lashkarava’s colleague Miranda Baghaturia told CPJ by messaging app in April 2022 that Lashkarava defended her from the protesters but then a group of about 20 people attacked him, kicking him in the head and face and leaving him in a pool of blood.
Lashkarava complained of severe pain the day before he was found dead, Baghaturia said.
The Lashkarava family and lawyers representing them objected to the police seizure of his body against their wishes on the morning his body was discovered. Simonishvili told CPJ that lawyers were not given access to the body until four hours after police seized it, and have questions about what happened to the body during that time.
On July 12, Central Criminal Police Department Director Mamuka Chelidze, stated that an initial post-mortem examination had found five separate narcotic substances in Lashkarava’s body and that the cause of death may have been an overdose.
Police also released footage and a reconstruction of Lashkarava’s movements on July 10 which they claimed showed that he had purchased and consumed drugs that day. On July 18, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that police had arrested an individual alleged to have sold heroin to Lashkarava and his friends.
Lashkarava’s family, colleagues, and many members of the media have questioned the police version of events and accused the government of attempting to shift responsibility for its failure to ensure journalists’ safety, or even cover up its complicity in stoking or condoning anti-LGBT violence and violence against the press.
Journalists argue that harsh government rhetoric against critical media helped fuel the violence. Rights groups including Georgia’s official human rights ombudsman have criticized authorities for failing to prosecute far-right and religious leaders alleged to have organized the attacks.
On April 4, 2022, the Tbilisi City Court convicted six people on charges including violent interference in journalistic activities and participating in organized group violence for attacking Lashkarava and Baghaturia, and sentenced them each to five years in prison, news reports and a statement by the Georgian prosecutor’s office said.
In November 2022, GYLA filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of 16 victims of the attacks, including the Lashkarava family. GYLA cited Georgian authorities’ alleged ineffective investigation into the organizers of the attacks, incomplete prosecution of perpetrators, and failure to provide information about whether investigations had been opened into state representatives for negligence or into allegations made by TV Pirveli that the State Security Service of Georgia had been involved in arranging the protests.
Lashkarava’s family and Aleksandre Gejadze, an independent expert added to the post-mortem investigation at the request of TV Pirveli, said that Lashkarava had received morphine to treat severe pain following surgery, according to reports. Gejadze agreed with the government’s findings that Lashkarava died as a result of heroin intoxication, reports said.
On January 16, 2023, Tbilisi Appeals Court reduced the sentence of the six individuals convicted of attacking Lashkarava from five years to four years, acquitting them of participating in organized group violence, local media reported. On July 4, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled prosecutors’ and defendants’ appeals inadmissible and confirmed the appeal court’s ruling, Kurdovanidze told CPJ.
CPJ emailed the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service of Georgia for comment, but did not receive any replies.