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Molested, Exposed, And Abandoned: The Tragic Death Of A Teenage Girl In Georgia

The apartment block of 15-year-old Tekla in Khashuri, Georgia. Her body was found in front of the building earlier this month and authorities are investigating the death as a possible suicide.
The apartment block of 15-year-old Tekla in Khashuri, Georgia. Her body was found in front of the building earlier this month and authorities are investigating the death as a possible suicide.

TAGVETI, Georgia -- On a cold, gray day, with puffy clouds clipping the distant mountains in the central Georgian village of Tagveti, some 100 kilometers west of the capital, Tbilisi, friends and family were struggling with the sudden loss of Tekla.

Days earlier, on October 15, the body of the 15-year-old girl was found lying in front of the drab eight-story concrete apartment block in nearby Khashuri where she had lived recently with her mother and two sisters, one being a twin. Working with few clues, police in Khashuri are investigating Tekla's death as a possible suicide.

In January 2022, Tekla -- the girl's real name -- was catapulted into the national spotlight when her paternal grandfather, who was accused of sexually abusing her, was interviewed on national television. Allowed to air his unsubstantiated accusations, Tekla's grandfather -- who was convicted of the crime nine months later and sentenced to 16 years in prison -- claimed that his granddaughter had been coached by psychologists treating her to concoct the story.

That the country's media was willing to air the grandfather's account speaks to Georgia's conservative culture, where in the mainly Orthodox Christian country, sexual crimes -- especially when committed by family members -- are largely hushed up. Tekla's family have also said that social services did little to help the teenager.

"When it comes to violence by a family member, children are usually blamed for the incident, accused of inventing something and exaggerating," said Ana Tavkhelidze, a lawyer at the Partnership for Human Rights, a Georgian NGO working with the victims of child sexual abuse.

Ana Tavkhelidze (file photo)
Ana Tavkhelidze (file photo)

Young people in Georgia are one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of mental health, a study by UNICEF found earlier this year, with a third of those between the ages of 18 and 24 having thought about suicide at least once in their lives.

A neighbor living across the hall on the eighth floor where Tekla's family was staying said a loud commotion around eight o'clock in the evening of October 15 signaled that something was not right. "We had just arrived home when I heard a noise outside. I didn't pay any attention at first, but then there was more commotion. My husband and I went out. I couldn't get close, but there was a child lying near our car. People said she had no signs of life," the woman, who requested that she remain anonymous, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

The Khashuri apartment where Tekla lived.
The Khashuri apartment where Tekla lived.

She remembered Tekla as being a quiet child who often seemed glued to her mother. "Tekla had a twin sister and a younger sister. If Tekla met you on the street, she wouldn't walk by without saying, 'Hello.' I rarely saw her outside with other kids. She spent most of her time with her mother. They were close. We still can't believe it and we don't know why or how it happened," the neighbor said.

Questions Being Asked

In the wake of her death, questions are being asked about whether Tekla was given the proper care and counseling that she required as a victim of sexual abuse. Asked by RFE/RL's Georgian Service whether Tekla had received appropriate care, including counselling from social workers and psychologists, the State Welfare Agency sent a terse reply: "The State Welfare Agency was involved in the case involving violence against a minor. The agency has provided all relevant services."

An employee with the Center for Psychological and Social Services for Children Victims of Violence -- a state-run agency with a branch in Khashuri -- told RFE/RL that Tekla had taken two "rehabilitation" courses at the psychological-social service center for abused children and "left the center in a stable condition."

The school in Khashuri that Tekla attended before her death.
The school in Khashuri that Tekla attended before her death.

At the school in Khashuri where Tekla was a 10th grader, the bell rings and children scramble to their classrooms. The director of the school, Moris Dandurishvili, said that, around a year ago, Tekla had started attending classes in person again after a recommendation made by him and a psychologist treating her. Before that, Tekla had been joining classes online, a practice that spread globally during the coronavirus pandemic.

"You know what her mother told me back then?" Dandurishvili said. "[She said] she will only return if we have a guarantee that she will not be mobbed by journalists at the entrance or will not face any difficulties at school. I promised that the most important thing is to bring the child back to school and that we would be responsible for keeping her safe while there. And we kept that promise. Her mother never once mentioned to us that she was having any problems here."

Two days before her death, Dandurishvili said that Tekla and her twin sister were participating in school elections. "Her class was one of the organizers of this event, and Tekla, along with other children, was actively taking part. And then this happened two days later. What happened in these two days [I don't know]. It didn't seem like anything was wrong." According to Dandurishvili, at that time, Tekla's mother complained that the family was facing pressure from the lawyer of the convicted grandfather.

'Poor Journalism'

Back in January 2022, media interest in the case spiked after a report aired on TV Pireli, a private Georgian TV network, claimed without providing specifics that new details had emerged that would "turn upside down" the sexual abuse charges and prove the grandfather's innocence.

With her daughter's privacy compromised, Tekla's mother turned to the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, an independent union of journalists. In a nonbinding resolution, the union said the TV report had violated not only Tekla's rights but had practiced poor journalism by airing statements as facts.

Lawyer Zurab Todua (file photo)
Lawyer Zurab Todua (file photo)

In an interview with RFE/RL, the grandfather's lawyer, Zurab Todua, denied that any pressure on Tekla's family was exerted. "I can say, for sure, that there was no pressure on the family either by the father, the grandfather, or myself," Todua said.

Now divorced, Tekla's father -- who is certain that his own father is innocent -- was interviewed by Khashuri police on October 16, the day after his daughter's death. Todua told RFE/RL that Tekla's father had concerns about the qualifications of her psychologist at the Center for Psychological and Social Services for Children Victims of Violence. "We had questions about the qualifications of this psychologist as early as two years ago, when court hearings and witness interviews in the case of sexual violence were ongoing," Todua said.

Several people who know the family told RFE/RL that Tekla's mother had wanted to live abroad with her children, but her former husband was opposed. Todua confirmed to RFE/RL that his client had "categorically refused" to grant permission to his former wife to take their children abroad. "The mother's decision was unacceptable for Tekla's father, because he did not know where they would go and with whom. That was about a year ago," the lawyer said.

Local residents attend Tekla's funeral in Tagveti.
Local residents attend Tekla's funeral in Tagveti.

Human rights defenders and lawyers with experience aiding the victims of child sexual abuse have faulted the authorities for failing Tekla, with the lawyer Tavkhelidze blaming police for doing too little to protect her. "Its function is not only to investigate and punish a specific perpetrator. Its function is to take protective measures so that a child is not subjected to further violence from different people," she told RFE/RL.

The care dispensed by the state to victims of sexual abuse also often falls short of what is needed, Tavkhelidze said. "We had a case in [the Black Sea resort town of] Kobuleti, with a 14-year-old victim of sexual violence who committed suicide. [He] was met twice by the social worker [who then] said…that the child had decided that he did not need a psychologist," she said.

Tavkhelidze also said that the social worker who handled Tekla's case should face closer scrutiny from the authorities. "For example, did someone explain to [Tekla] that she had the right to hire a free lawyer at the expense of the state? That she had the right to turn to the court and request that her travel-abroad document was prepared so that her father's consent would not be needed."

Back in Tagveti, at the modest one-story home of the family of Tekla's mother, friends and family gather to say goodbye to Tekla. Amid the many mourners, the barely audible voice of Tekla's mother can be heard. "I couldn't protect you," she said.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service's Nino Tarkhnishvili
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    Nino Tarkhnishvili

    Nino Tarkhnishvili has worked in the Tbilisi bureau of RFE/RL's Georgian Service since 2009. Her work focuses on health, human rights, education, minorities, and other social issues.