The Justice Department is on the verge of allowing Gueorgui Makharadze, the Georgian diplomat convicted of charges stemming from a traffic accident in Washington that killed a 16-year-old girl, to be returned to his homeland to serve the rest of his prison sentence.
Sources familiar with the matter said discussions have intensified in recent weeks as Justice Department, State Department and Georgian government officials attempt to work out the arrangements. The transfer, requested by the Georgian government, would take place under terms of well-established international treaties.
"It would be his own country, his own culture, as opposed to being in jail here," said E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., one of Makharadze's lawyers. "That's precisely what these treaties are for. Frankly, I don't care where he serves his time--he's been in his own prison since the day of the accident."
If Makharadze returns home, it would mark another controversial twist in a case that from the start has had international implications. Makharadze, who was deputy chief of mission at the Georgian Embassy, was drunk and speeding the night of Jan. 3, 1997, when his Ford Taurus plowed into a line of cars waiting at a stoplight near Dupont Circle. The crash killed Joviane Waltrick and injured four other people. Because Makharadze had diplomatic immunity, authorities initially were unable to charge him with any crimes. Six weeks after the crash, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze waived Makharadze's immunity.
Makharadze pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges. He was sentenced in December 1997 to a term of seven to 21 years and is now at a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
Justice Department officials declined to discuss the Makharadze case yesterday, as did State Department authorities. Officials with the Georgian Embassy did not return a telephone message seeking comment, and neither did Robert S. Bennett, a Washington lawyer who has represented the country.
In a statement released last night by her lawyer, Waltrick's mother, Viviane Wagner, questioned whether all foreign nationals are permitted to complete their sentences at home, asking: "Is it a benefit granted to Mr. Makharadze because he used to be a diplomat?"
Wagner, who with other relatives led a "Justice For Joviane" campaign after the crash said she had fought "not to sentence (Makharadze), but to force him to face the U.S. justice system as a common person." International treaties permit prisoners convicted of crimes in foreign nations to serve their terms in their homelands, provided both countries agree.
Justice Department officials said that dozens of prisoners are transferred under treaties each year. Georgia and the United States are parties to the Council of European Convention, a pact covering prisoners, officials said. Georgia signed the treaty in February 1998, after Makharadze was sentenced.
Within days after waiving Makharadze's immunity, Shevardnadze raised the idea of having Makharadze serve any sentence in Georgia. However, U.S. authorities said that the transfer was not a condition for the waiver.
If Makharadze remains incarcerated in the United States, the U.S. Parole Commission would determine when he is released. With credit for good behavior, the earliest release date would be at the end of 2003. If Makharadze goes to Georgia, however, officials in that country would decide how to administer the rest of his term. It was unclear yesterday how he would be treated there. One source said the subject is among those being discussed by the two nations.
That uncertainty concerns the Waltrick family, according to their attorney, George R.A. Doumar.
"Our position is he should stay here. . . . Once he goes back to Georgia, their treatment of him could be very lenient," Doumar said.
Wagner, Waltrick's mother, who returned this year to her native Brazil, had met with Makharadze several times at the Butner prison and believed he felt great remorse, Doumar said. Makharadze, now 38, recently hired a Georgian artist to do a small religious painting for Wagner and sent it to her as a kind of memorial, Doumar said.
CAPTION: Gueorgui Makharadze is in a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
CAPTION: Joviane Waltrick, 16, was killed by a car driven by Gueorgui Makharadze. Four other people were injured.