Sanaya, a popular 26-year-old Georgian journalist, was found dead in his Tbilisi apartment on July 26, 2001. He had been shot once in the head at close range with a 9 mm weapon. Sanaya anchored “Night Courier,” a nightly political talk show in which he interviewed Georgia’s leading politicians on the independent television station Rustavi-2.
Nika Tabatadze, news director of Rustavi-2, told CPJ that Sanaya’s colleagues became concerned when he failed to report for work at the usual time on the afternoon of July 26 and did not answer his home phone or cellphone. That evening, a group of co-workers went to his
apartment and knocked repeatedly on the door. When no one answered, they called the police, who entered the apartment and discovered Sanaya’s body.
In a special television address, President Eduard Shevardnadze directed the minister of internal affairs, the prosecutor general, and the minister of state security to oversee the investigation personally. On July 27, President Shevardnadze met with U.S. chargé d’affaires Philip Remler and asked for the FBI’s help in the investigation, according to Georgian and Russian press sources.
Although the police, assisted by a group of FBI agents, immediately launched an investigation, it failed to produce significant results. A suspect was detained in August but was later released due to lack of evidence, CPJ sources reported.
Sanaya’s Rustavi-2 colleagues firmly believe that the killing resulted from his professional work, although they were not aware of any specific threats against the journalist. Erosi Kitsmarishvili, executive director of Rustavi-2, told CPJ that the killing could have been intended to intimidate the station, which is known for its investigative reporting on state corruption and misuse of power in Georgia. The station was frequently been the target of government harassment.
While Sanaya’s work was not generally controversial, he had recently hosted a segment on Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, an area near the Chechen border known for drug smuggling and kidnapping. A former parliamentary deputy who appeared on the program speculated publicly that criminals from the Pankisi Gorge region may have been responsible for Sanaya’s death.
On December 6, 2001, police arrested former police officer Grigol Khurtsilava after a ballistic analysis traced the murder weapon to him, the Georgian news agency Black Sea Press reported. Acting on his confession, police found the murder weapon and keys to Sanaya’s apartment. Khurtsilava was then officially charged with Sanaya’s murder, local and international sources reported. In July 2003, Khurtsilava was sentenced to 13 years in jail on murder charges, independent regional news site Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) reported.
In March 2018, the Georgian prosecutor general’s office court reopened the investigation into Sanaya’s killing after Kote Tsikhistavi, a man serving a prison sentence for kidnapping and murders unrelated to Sanaya’s case, declared that he knew the names of those who ordered the journalist’s killing, and that they were top Georgian government officials at the time of the attack, according to news reports.
Tsikhistavi also alleged that Khurtsilava was not the journalist’s killer, alleging that Shota Chichiashvili, a former Georgian special forces officer with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and a convicted criminal, had committed the crime, according to those reports.
Chichiashvili’s attorney denied the allegations and called them “defamation” and accused Rustavi-2 of “disinformation,” Kavkazsky Uzel reported. Chichiashvili was shot and killed in Ukraine in 2019 by police when he resisted arrest in a case unrelated to Sanaya’s case, according to news reports.