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Crash that kills girl spotlights diplomatic immunity

January 7, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A diplomat facing possible charges in a car crash that killed a teen-age girl will probably be expelled from the United States unless his government waives diplomatic immunity, the State Department said today.

``They ought to let him stand trial,″ State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said of Gueorgui Makharadze, 35, the second-ranking official at the Embassy of the Republic of Georgia.

``They ought in fact to lift his diplomatic immunity, and if that is not the case, then I think the United States is going to do what we always do in these cases, and that is expel the individual,″ Burns told NBC’s ``Today″ show.

The U.S. attorney’s office here has not yet decided to prosecute the diplomat in the crash that killed Jovianne Waltrick, 16, of nearby Kensington, Md.

Police have indicated that speed and alcohol may have contributed to the crash, but the diplomat refused to submit to a police Breathalyzer test and could not be forced to give blood or urine specimens for testing, a law enforcement source said today, confirming a report in The Washington Post.

Skid marks and witness accounts indicate his car was traveling as fast as 80 mph through downtown Washington when the crash occurred Friday night.

Police investigators, who are trying to reconstruct what happened, are reinterviewing witnesses and examining the diplomat’s claim that his brakes may have failed, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Monday that U.S. authorities were working with Georgian government officials to resolve the case with two goals in mind: ``That justice be done and that proper diplomacy be applied.″

At the same time, U.S. officials strongly defend the decades-old custom of sheltering diplomats from civil and criminal charges to keep them from being harassed while doing their jobs in faraway lands.

``We certainly understand the motivation of a family of a victim who has lost her life, but we would respectfully say that this practice of diplomatic immunity has served the United States for two centuries and will continue to serve us well,″ Burns said Monday. ``There’s a logic to this diplomatic immunity.″

Today, deputy spokesman Glyn Davies disclosed an American diplomat struck and killed a Russian pedestrian in Moscow in 1993 and was recalled after Russian authorities said he would be prosecuted.

The American, who was not identified, was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol.

The United States did not waive diplomatic immunity and determined he had not been drinking. No disciplinary action was taken against the American, who remains in the foreign service, Davies said.

Makharadze has apologized for the accident and Georgia President Eduard Shevardnadze promised the diplomat will be held responsible. He also pledged cooperation with investigators.

``The Georgians have told us they’re going to have full cooperation in this investigation,″ Burns said today.

But asked if the Georgia government would agree to a U.S. request that diplomatic immunity be waived, Burns responded: ``If charges are brought, the Georgian government faces a major, major task.

``It has to decide whether or not it will allow their person to stand in front of the U.S. judicial system,″ Burns said. ``We think that should be the case. I think frankly it is more likely the Georgian government will probably elect to send him home or have him expelled, and that is most unfortunate.″

The accident, along with recent cases involving diplomats in New York and Paris, casts a fresh spotlight on the issue of diplomatic immunity.

``There is potential for abuse,″ said Alvin P. Adams Jr., a former ambassador to Peru and Haiti and the president of the U.N. Association of the United States, a U.N. lobbying group. ``That is why diplomats must be properly trained and ambassadors must have a policy of zero tolerance.″

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., urged President Clinton to withhold up to $30 million in federal aid to the former Soviet state this year if the country refuses to waive diplomatic immunity.

Although Makharadze apologized, the victim’s family vowed vengeance.

``This to me is murder, and there has to be some recourse,″ said David Richin, an attorney for the girl’s family.

The U.S. attorney’s office expects to decide soon whether to pursue felony charges that could include vehicular manslaughter against Makharadze, said spokesman Kevin Ohlson.

Governments rarely waive diplomatic immunity.

Serious cases are infrequent. Seventeen felonies were committed by foreign diplomats in the United States in 1995, and 19 were committed the previous year, according to the State Department. Statistics for 1996 aren’t yet compiled, but the number is in the same range, an agency official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said nearly all the cases were shoplifting or assault. None involved a death. In all cases, the diplomat was expelled or called home, the official said.

Overseas, most cases of diplomatic immunity involving U.S. officials involve car wrecks, according to the official.

In a 1989 case, the Belgian government waived diplomatic immunity for a 25-year-old embassy driver-clerk in Washington who admitted killing two men in Florida. The decision came after the United States agreed not to seek the death penalty for Rudy Van Den Borre, who is serving a 25-year sentence. Van Den Borre did not have the full diplomatic immunity that is enjoyed by top embassy officials and ambassadors.

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