Judicial progress in Georgia?

By bne IntelliNews September 18, 2013

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Over the past year, Georgian politics has been punctuated by a series of high-profile arrests. For critics of the new government, the drumbeat of prosecutions and protests have underscored fears that the Georgian Dream coalition is more concerned about retribution than justice.

But on the other side there is growing belief that while the arrests have added to the political gridlock between President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new government, the changes being made to the judicial system could be one of the administration's most successful reforms.

The Georgian judiciary has long been a swamp of political intrigue, corruption and conflicts of interest. While President Saakashvili, a former minister of justice, campaigned on reforming the court system, the period from 2003 to 2012 when he and his United National Movement (UNM) government were in power together saw a super-charged prosecution and emasculated judges who routinely ruled in favour of the government. The high percentage of guilty verdicts, coupled with the country's rate of incarceration, created a system where, once accused of a crime, defendants assumed it was better to strike a deal than end up in court.

Georgian's history of having the court system used as an extension of the government's own power added to fears that the new one led by the Georgian Dream coalition, which defeated UNM in the 2012 parliamentary election, would wield the judicial process as a weapon against its political adversaries.

Indeed, almost as soon as they took power, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition started arresting Saakashvili's closet allies, including former prime minister Vano Merabishvili, former defence minister and police czar Bacho Akhalaia, Kakheti Governor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, and pro-Saakashvili television director Nika Gvaramia. In addition, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava has been charged (but not arrested) with money laundering and embezzlement while in office.

The cases caused alarm: western diplomats and even lawmakers in the US and EU have warned Ivanishvili about the nature of the arrests and the punitive undertones that colour the allegations against the men.

There have also been countless missteps in how the police have handled the arrests, illustrated by the decision to arrest high-ranking Tbilisi officials on June 27 during Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's visit, even after the Nato chief underlined his own concerns about how the government was handling cases against former officials.

However, a recent report by Transparency International Georgia suggests that once the cases get to court, politics appear to take a backstage to judicial process.

Due process

From February until July, the Transparency International team observed court cases against Akhalaia, Merabishvili, Ugulava and many other former high-ranking officials - including Irakli Okruashvili, the former defense minister- turned-Saakashvili foe.

While the verdicts and sentences delivered against the men will be the final test of the courts' independence and competence, a smattering of reports concerning the way the cases have been heard appears to support claims the new government might have achieved a rare judicial success in its handling of the cases.

The Transparency International report found that, unlike when judges ruled on cases in the past, over the past six months "equality was observed" between the defence and the prosecution. "Both the defense and the prosecution enjoyed equal opportunities to present their positions, and they could freely exercise the rights safeguarded by procedural legislation," an English-language summary of the report notes.

Akhalaia and his defence team managed to beat some charges of abuse and torture in an unexpected court verdict on August 1 - a very public defeat for the new administration that could, however, turn out to be a victory of sorts by creating a precedent for a more independent judiciary.

The judiciary, for better or worse, seems eager to prove its new power. On September 10, former foreign minister Salome Zourabishvili lost her final appeal to overturn a decision barring her from running in the presidential election in October despite receiving public approval from Ivanishvili.

The case has special resonance since Ivanishvili is not even a Georgian citizen, as his citizenship was revoked by the former government through the courts prior to the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Zourabishvili, who has dual-nationality, tried unsuccessfully to argue against a law that bars dual-nationality citizens from becoming president based on the fact it does not prohibit them from running for office. She was supported by three election watchdogs, which agreed the law does not prohibit her from campaigning.

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