Diplomatic immunity goes under scrutiny

WASHINGTON (AP) — The death of a 16-year-old girl in a high-speed car crash involving an official from the Republic of Georgia is stirring anger diplomatic immunity may protect the driver from possible charges.
The weekend accident, along with recent cases involving diplomats in New York and Paris, puts a spotlight on the decades-old custom of sheltering diplomats from civil and criminal charges to keep them from being harassed while they do their jobs in faraway lands.
“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.”
Police have indicated that speed and alcohol may have contributed to the five-car pileup Saturday night along Embassy Row that killed Jovianne Waltrick of Kensington, Md.
But even as an investigation continued, 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 for Gueorgui Makharadze, the second-ranking official at the Georgian Embassy.
“Americans will not tolerate having their dollars go to a nation which would use a legal technicality to harbor a drunk driver whose actions have led to this tragic death,” Gregg complained in a statement.
Makharadze, whose car started the pileup, apologized and Georgian officials relayed their regret, but 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 family of the girl.
The U.S. attorney’s office, which will determine whether to pursue felony charges of possible vehicular manslaughter against Makharadze, 35, expects to make a decision as soon as Tuesday, said spokesman Kevin Ohlson.
If criminal charges are recommended, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the U.S. government would ask Georgia to waive diplomatic immunity — and would expel Makharadze if rebuffed.
“We let the (Georgian) ambassador know of our very, very serious concern about this case,” Burns said.
It’s almost unheard of, however, for the United States or other governments to waive diplomatic immunity. In serious cases, at most diplomats are called home — making them in some ways above the law.
Serious cases are infrequent. There were 17 felonies committed by foreign diplomats in 1995 in the United States, compared with 19 the previous year, according to the State Department. Statistics for 1996 aren’t yet compiled, but are in the same range, said an agency official.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said none of the cases involved a death and nearly all were shoplifting or assault. In all cases, the diplomat was expelled or called home, the official said.
Overseas, most cases of diplomatic immunity involving U.S. officials are related to car wrecks, said\o the official.
In the most recent diplomatic immunity cases:
ù Last week in New York City, two diplomats for Russia and Belarus got into a scuffle with police when officers tried to arrest one of the men on suspicion of drunken driving. The diplomats were released after they showed their credentials, giving them immunity from arrest. The State Department is investigating and hasn’t made a recommendation.
ù In Paris, thousands of people took to the streets in November to protest the handling of a case in which the Zairian ambassador killed two boys when he hit them with his car. Last week, a Zairian official said his government will refuse a French request to lift the diplomatic immunity of Ramazani Baya so he can face charges, although he has been ordered home.