Lived as Women, Buried as Men

Murders of Transgender Women in Georgia

by Tiko Zurabishvili 

Sabi Beriani, Zizi Shekiladze, Bianka Shigurova -- these are the names of Georgian transgender women known for their tragic ends in Tbilisi. They are often remembered by the LGBT community and human rights NGOs.

As reported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Beriani was found dead in her rented apartment on Pekini street on November 11, 2014. She had multiple wounds on her body. Police arrested the perpetrator Levan Kochlashvili two days later. Prior to leaving the crime scene, he had set the apartment on fire. After being exonerated from murder charges in his first two court cases, the Supreme Court eventually found Kochlashvili guilty and sentenced him to 10 years of imprisonment.

Shekiladze died in a hospital over a month after being attacked in Ortachala on October 14, 2016. She suffered numerous wounds from a blunt object and a knife. Giorgi Murjikneli was detained for the deadly attack. He was found guilty by Tbilisi City Court and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment, in addition to 3 years for a prior crime.

Shigurova’s death was ruled to be a fatal accident due to a gas leak. Her body was discovered on February 4, 2016. On the day Beriani died in 2014, her killer also tried to kill Shigurova.

Women’s Initiative Supporting Group (WISG) aids and defends the rights of transgender women in Georgia. Tsiala Ratiani represented the legal interests of the deceased Beriani and Shekiladze in the courts.

According to Ratiani, Beriani's killer was an active client of transgender women’s sexual services. “He was familiar not only with Sabi, but also other transgender women who were later questioned,” she said.

The lawyer discussed the attack on Shigurova: “Before the perpetrator went to Beriani’s place, he visited Bianka and tried to suffocate her. Bianka was lucky that time as she wasn’t alone. Her boyfriend was there, and the neighbors went in, too.”

“As Bianka stated in court, the accused told her that she wasn’t the last one, and he was going to visit Lucy, too. Lucy was one of Sabi’s nicknames. She used different names in social media.”

Ratiani is unsure about the motive for Beriani's murder: “We’ll probably never know, unfortunately. Sabi is dead, and the murderer claims he was defending himself."

“One of the possible reasons he (the accused) had initially stated was that Sabi owed him 5,000 Lari. As it turned out, the accused himself was in debt to another woman. We also checked Sabi’s personal bank account and she had over 4,000 Lari. Therefore, she had no reason to borrow money from the accused.”

The lawyer also stated that the initial exoneration of the accused made other transgenders lose trust in the authorities: “They wouldn’t go to the police with me. They didn’t see the point of it. If a murderer was exonerated, they had no hope anyone would punish those who hit or robbed them.”

Regarding Shekiladze’s case, Ratiani said the victim and the accused knew each other from the Ksani Colony prison. “I really don’t know what kind of a relationship they had. However, as you may know, transgenders have a different status from regular prisoners in jail.

“The girlfriend of the accused was about eight months pregnant. She was offering sexual services in Ortachala, where Zizi worked as well. Zizi was outraged about it, told her to take care of her child, and wouldn’t let her work.

"When the accused found out, he went to Zizi. They had a conflict, which ended up with Zizi suffering multiple injuries and falling into a coma before she died."

Both perpetrators were charged with premeditated murder. But Ratiani does not exclude transphobic (negative attitudes toward transgenders) grounds.

“When such brutal murders happen, aside from the stated reasons, they happen because the perpetrators probably dislike the victims because of their gender identities.”

As for the victims’ family members, the lawyer added: “Sabi’s mother attended all court meetings. She almost had a heart attack when the accused was exonerated from murder charges in the first two trials. Sabi’s grandfather was pleading with the authorities to hand the accused to him.”

"Zizi’s mother would often visit her daughter in the hospital. Both mothers were in very tough shape since their children were so ruthlessly attacked.”

Asked if victims are buried as men, Ratiani replied: “Passport names are written on both Sabi and Zizi’s graves. It’s up to a family to decide. Unfortunately, the deceased can’t tell how they wish to be buried.”

The Head of the Human Rights Defense Department at the Ministry of Internal Affairs Goga Khatiashvili discussed the status of crimes against transgender women in Georgian legislation:

“Femicide is the murder of women. Unfortunately, our legislation does not recognize gender identity. Therefore, legally, people are categorized by their biological sex. Murders of transgender women are generally categorized as regular premeditated murders. However, if it’s revealed that a person was murdered because of gender identity, we will (prosecute it) as having aggravated circumstances.”

“Compared to 2017, we received twice as many reports with discrimination motives in 2018," Khatiashvili said. "LGBT community members usually have direct communication with us. However, we still face a number of challenges. For example, victims may initially come to us, but later decline to cooperate. When victims don’t cooperate, we then have a hard time proving anything.”

Psychologist Tamar Tandashvili explained possible reasons for committing hate crimes: “There are so-called scapegoats in every society. Transgenders can be especially vulnerable, as they put into question something as basic as their gender. For that reason, many people in our society refuse to accept them. Thus, they are more susceptible to be attacked than others.”

“Frustration is another reason,” she added. “When a person experiences frustration in life, they often become hostile towards a particular person or group. Meanwhile, when there are vulnerable people around, they are more likely to be targeted.”

Tandashvili explained such crimes can also be acts of self-rejection: “There’s also the possibility of internalized homophobia, which is linked to one’s own denial and self-loathing of their real sexual orientation. It is often the reason for homophobic and transphobic attacks.”