LONDON — A tycoon and opposition leader from the nation of Georgia who had often claimed that his enemies were out to kill him was found dead at his home outside London, police said Wednesday.
British police said the death of 52-year-old Badri Patarkatsishvili was "suspicious," and a special crime team was investigating. His body was taken for postmortem and toxicology tests, but no results were expected before this morning at the earliest.
Patarkatsishvili, a bitter enemy of U.S.-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, collapsed at his lavish home in Surrey, a wealthy commuter-belt area where he'd taken up residence with his wife. His body was found late Tuesday.
In Georgia, Patarkatsishvili's allies called for a thorough investigation, with some blaming the government for the death. Whatever the results of the autopsy, the collapse of Patarkatsishvili is certain to deepen already intense resentments between the government and opposition.
"Even if the death resulted from natural causes, Saakashvili will still bear a significant share of guilt because it is clear to all that Patarkatsishvili's heart came under very severe stress resulting from the fierce political fight and the fact that he was hounded out of the country like a criminal," Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an independent analyst based in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, said in a telephone interview.
"So in any case, the moral damage to Saakashvili is already immense," Sakvarelidze said.
In an online statement issued Wednesday night, the Georgian president offered his condolences to the tycoon's family.
"Regardless of the fact that Badri Patarkatsishvili was accused of a grave crime against the state, every person's death is a great tragedy," the statement said.
Patarkatsishvili, who seemed to exist in the epicenter of perpetual intrigue, had fled political backbiting and criminal charges in Georgia. He was wanted there on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He also was wanted in Russia on accusations of arranging the 2001 failed escape from custody of a former Aeroflot official.
Patarkatsishvili, who made a fortune in businesses in Georgia and Russia, was an ardent supporter of the 2003 Rose Revolution, the wave of street protests that swept out a Russian-backed government and installed Saakashvili. But as relations soured between the Georgian president and many of his former allies, the tycoon drifted to the opposition.
Growing tensions erupted into violence last fall when thousands of anti-Saakashvili demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Tbilisi. The government cracked down hard on the protesters, clearing them out with truncheons and tear gas.
At the same time, agents stormed Patarkatsishvili's popular and outspoken television station, Imedi. The government shut down the station, accusing it of inciting the protests.
The plot thickened in December, when the government released audiotapes and videotapes of secret meetings between the tycoon and a high-ranking Interior Ministry official. In the tapes, a voice believed to be that of Patarkatsishvili is heard offering the official millions of dollars to help him organize massive street demonstrations.
Based on those transcripts, the government accused him of trying to organize a coup.
Patarkatsishvili and his wife took up residence in their house near London in November. He continued to work with the Georgian opposition from afar, complaining all the while that his life was in danger. He gained 7% of the vote in January's presidential election, which reinstalled Saakashvili over the protests of the opposition.
"He was continuing his political activities. From the government side there were many attacks on him, from law enforcement as well as politicians," said opposition leader David Usupashvili. "Unfortunately, the issue of his possible liquidation was mentioned several times during the past months."
In December, Patarkatsishvili told Britain's Daily Telegraph that he had moved to London because of "black PR" and alleged Georgian government plans to "get rid of me." He also released to reporters a tape recording that he said included a Georgian official asking a Chechen warlord to kill the tycoon in London, a claim that could not be confirmed.
"I intend to stay in London. I haven't decided to die yet, so I'm not going to go to Georgia for the moment," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Stobart reported from London and Stack from Moscow. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.