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

Georgian authorities have finally released an autopsy report for TV Pirveli journalist and cameraman Aleksandre Lashkarava, 37, who was named Lekso by his colleagues and was found dead in his Tbilisi home on July 11. Lashkarava was among around 50 journalists injured while covering the July 5 Pride March in Tbilisi.

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

After the death, the 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 dismissed preliminary conclusions that Lasharava died of a drug overdose, which “[raised] serious questions about the motives of the authorities and whether they tried to manipulate public opinion, considering that the Georgian law does not recognize the term “preliminary forensic results,” Gogia explained.

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

It was another month before local authorities released the autopsy results. On Jan. 7, authorities in Georgia concluded that the journalist died of “severe cardiovascular and respiratory failure due to heroin intoxication,” OC Media reported.

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

Georgian civil society groups are not surprised that the autopsy report concludes that Lasharava died of a drug overdose. When Laskharava was found dead, the state quickly circulated a narrative that he was an addict, and police confiscated Laskharava’s body, though his family refused a state-run forensic autopsy and examination. “His body was literally taken by law enforcement from his home prior to the family’s arrival. It took authorities over five months to release fragments of the final forensic examination results,” Gogia told Global Voices.

A day after the journalist’s body was removed from his home, Director of the Interior Ministry’s Central Criminal Investigation Department, Mamuka Chelidze, said a preliminary toxicological report found traces of a number of drugs in Lashkarava’s system, including the painkillers morphine, codeine and gabapentin; and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis; and monoacetylmorphine, one of the active ingredients in heroin. In the same statement, the Interior Ministry claimed authorities had evidence that Lashkarava bought drugs on July 10 in the form of CCTV footage of Laskharava in the Ponichala district of the capital Tbilisi, an area known for its drug activities on -Reporting.

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

There were no resignations. The only action that took place was a fine imposed on the Home Office. According to the released CCTV footage, the State Inspector’s Office, a government agency established in 2019 tasked with investigating serious crimes committed by state officials, fined the ministry 2,000 GEL (approximately US$640) for breaching personal information. The State Inspectorate is now threatened with closure.

Another regressive law was passed in the Caucasus today, one day before the New Year. #Georgia🇬🇪 overhauls the State Inspector’s Office responsible for investigating abuse of office. Lack of transparency, consultation and hasty billing are likely to indicate retaliation. Alarming!

— Giorgi Gogia (@Giorgi_Gogia) December 30, 2021

The autopsy report released on January 7 claimed that the late journalist’s family members had been informed of the final autopsy results, a claim which family lawyer Takalandze denied. According to OC Media, “Takalandze told OC Media that he and the family learned of the findings through media reports and that neither the Home Office nor the National Forensic Bureau had contacted him or the family.”

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

#Georgia: The Speaker of Parliament criticized @UNESCO for including cameraman Aleksandr Lashkarava on its list of journalists killed in 2021. Although authorities are still defending that he died of an overdose, RSF is demanding the full release of the forensic report and a transparent investigation.

— RSF (@RSF_inter) January 7, 2022

According to Human Rights Watch’s most recent country report for Georgia, the media environment in Georgia has experienced some severe setbacks over the past year.