Can a diplomat get away with murder?

A girl's death has fuelled the cries to end immunity, writes David Usborne in New York

A kerbside scuffle and a deadly car accident - two incidents in two cities in as many weeks - are triggering passionate debate in the United States about the behaviour of foreign diplomats living here and their use - or abuse - of the centuries-old claim of diplomatic immunity to duck legal retribution.

Grumbling about diplomats and their (lack of) regard for US laws is a favourite sport in New York and Washington DC, where most of them are posted. Nearly always it is about trivial fare - non-payment of parking tickets - but the refrain is clear: those dips are getting away with murder.

Even the common-or-garden infractions can occasionally escalate into front-page controversies. Such was the case after Christmas in New York, when two foreign officials, from the Russian and Belarus missions to the United Nations, were challenged by police after parking their car near a fire hydrant.

There is disagreement on what happened next. The diplomats say they were beaten by the officers, the officers say they were attacked by the diplomats. The Russian government complained; New York's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, demanded the pair be expelled from his city and the country.

But the New York affair - in which an indignant stalemate now prevails - has been eclipsed by the events of last Friday night on a busy street in Washington DC. A new Ford, hurtling at 80 miles an hour, slammed into the rear of a car stationary at traffic lights. The second car flew through the air and landed on a third, crushing and killing a passenger inside. She was 16-year-old Joviane Waltrick.

Getting away with murder is no longer metaphoric. Behind the wheel of the Ford - and, according to police, intoxicated - was Gueorgui Makharadze, number two at the Washington embassy of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Prosecutors in Washington DC have said they would be ready to charge Mr Makharadze with negligent homicide - if only they could.

There seems little doubt the State Department will formally ask Georgia to waive the diplomatic immunity in Mr Makharadze's case. Few expect Georgia to acquiesce, however, in spite of a sympathetic letter of condolence sent by its president, Eduard Shevardnadze, to Joviane's grieving parents. America will be able to expel Mr Makharadze but nothing more.

Outrage over the case has spread to Capitol Hill, where the New Hampshire senator, Judd Gregg, has called on the White House to suspend the $30m (pounds 18m) in US aid sent annually to Georgia. David Richin, a lawyer for the dead girl's family, said: "This to me is murder, and there has to be some recourse."

For countries willingly to waive immunity for one of their representatives abroad is extremely rare. Belgium allowed the shield of immunity to be lifted from a low-level embassy official who was convicted of killing two men in Miami. He is serving 25 years in a US jail.

But nor is serious crime exactly rampant among diplomats posted in the US. Figures released by the State Department this week show that in a diplomatic corps that numbers 118,000 people (of which 18,000 enjoy immunity), less than one tenth of one per cent were involved in serious crime in 1995.

Petty abuse is endemic, however. In the New York case, it emerged that the car involved, from the Belarus mission, had been ticketed for traffic violations no less than 386 times in 1996; none had been paid. The 100- odd car fleet of the Russian mission, meanwhile, attracted an astonishing 14,437 tickets in six months of last year.

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