Georgia on trial

By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2013

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Plans to review court verdicts made during the time of the government that came into office following the Rose Revolution in 2003 are raising hopes that thousands of Georgians will get a second chance for a fair trial. But with a reported mandate to revisit eight years of court verdicts in just three years, human rights defenders and lawyers fear the commission could be paralyzed before it begins.

Reviewing court verdicts was a core part of the Georgian Dream coalition's campaign promises to restore justice in Georgia after nine years of failed reform of the judiciary. While President Mikheil Saakashvili had championed court reform during his United National Movement (UNM) party's nine years in power until it was ousted in 2012, complaints of influence over judges, poor judgments, and reported systematic miscarriages of justice have plagued the courts for years.

The commission, which still requires approval from parliament, is planned to consist of 15 members and staff, based on the draft version of plans. It would be charged with reviewing "shortcomings" in verdicts passed by Georgian courts from 2005 until October 1, 2012 - the day the Georgian Dream coalition won the parliamentary elections.

Administrative, criminal, and civil cases will be able to appeal to the commission if they meet criteria set out by the draft law. Verdicts that the commission find questionable will be referred to a special chamber in the Supreme Court for review. It is unclear if the cases would then be retried by the Supreme Court or be sent back to a lower court. Deputy Minister Sandro Baramidze, the author of the draft law, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, however, has spoken about the need for a commission since she was appointed following the October 2012 elections. In an interview with EurasiaNet, Tsulukiani stated that an independent body is necessary to "restore the feeling of justice" in Georgian society.

In 2010, the latest official figures available, the acquittal rate in the Tbilisi City Courts was just 0.04%. The situation has not dramatically improved since the 2012 elections: a Georgian Young Lawyer Association (GYLA) survey of 402 criminal cases in the Tbilisi courts from July to December 2012 found that 91% of trials ended in a guilty verdict.

Tsulukiani, who left a career at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to join Irakli Alasania's party in opposition to Saakashvili and his UNM, has long stated that the number of Georgian cases at the ECHR was a troubling sign of injustice in the Georgian courts. The court reviewed 533 cases from Georgia in 2012; 521 of which were found inadmissible or were struck out, according to the ECHR's website.

But lawyers and human rights advocates caution that the commission has to find a balance between providing justice and setting fair criteria. Just the process of reviewing the cases will likely take longer than the commission's tentative three-year time limit. The draft law foresees an extra year extension, if deemed necessary by parliament. But with thousands of probable applications, the commission will be hard pressed to complete its task. "The idea is to create some sort of body that would be able to handle miscarriages of justice. However just the sheer volume of the people who might be applying to this commission might be overwhelming," notes Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher in the South Caucasus.

Kakha Kozhoridze, chairman of GYLA, says the commission is necessary to deal with the "systematic" problems in the Georgian judiciary system during the previous government. He noted, however, that the 15-member commission will not have the resources necessary to review the petitions. Over the past month, there have been over 100 applications to GYLA's legal aid team to help people with the forms necessary to apply to the commission - and it hasn't even been officially created yet.

Tsulukiani has mentioned creating criteria to filter through the number of cases but lawyers and human rights advocates worry that striking a balance between manageability and insuring equal justice for all citizens will be difficult.

Gogia stressed that creating a national "narrative" about what happened in the court system and why there were so many miscarriages of justice should be an integral part of the process.

"In order to treat something, you need to diagnose it," he said. "This is part of diagnosing the problem... why we ended up where we were."

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