Retribution in Georgia

By bne IntelliNews October 23, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

For years, the Georgian prosecutors' office and court system trampled on property rights and human rights, leaving a tangled mess of allegedly politically motivated arrests and dubious court verdicts. With the Georgian Dream coalition now in power after winning the October 1 elections, people are eager for retribution, but Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is warning against acts of "revenge."

Members of the defeated United National Movement (UNM), President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, are hoping the coalition is ready to forgive and forget, but they found little comfort at the first session of parliament on October 21. After months of a brutally aggressive campaign - and years of political animosity - the coalition's reception for UNM was frosty: members of the Georgian Dream neither stood when the president entered the parliament hall nor applauded when he concluded his speech.

Davit Usupashvili, a leader in the coalition and the newly elected parliamentary speaker, told journalists that members of parliament who committed crimes during the pre-election period can expect to be punished. "We don't want to act as per our mood or views. All issues should be legally grounded," he said. "It is not about just one certain MP. We are not going to forget what had happened before October 1."

With the mysterious death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania, the murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani, and scores of disputed property and business deals, there are plenty of cases for the new government to reopen. A parliamentary committee charged with investigating past misdeeds will be created - likely before the end of October, noted Tina Khidasheli, a lawmaker from the coalition and Usupashvili's wife.

Leaving the country

Saakashvili's allies are clearly taking heed. Reports of former ministers and high level appointments fleeing the country have increased since the election: Bacho Akhalaia, who had served as head of the prison ministry, defense minister and minister of interior affairs - Georgia's national policing body - as well as Zurab Adeishvili, the powerful justice minister, both left Georgia soon after the elections. Dimitri Shashkin, who led the prison ministry, as well as being a past minister of education and defense, posted a brief goodbye to the country on his Facebook page on October 22. He did not indicate his future plans or if he plans on returning to the country.

Expectations that the new government will right eight years of perceived injustice are high, and the new authorities are under "enormous" pressure to act, notes Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. And controlling those expectations, Gogia warns, will be a huge task.

Tea Tsulukiani, Georgian Dream's nominee for minister of justice and a former lawyer with the European Court of Human Rights, says the coalition is well aware what society expects from them. But she reiterates that any action against anyone - from former ministers to judges charged with misusing their position - will be based on the law, not society's thirst for revenge. "We need to create... a body that is in charge of reviewing cases," she says. "First of all, we need to install some filtering mechanism because every family of every prisoner expects its own prisoner is an illegal one, so we will make some filtering mechanism. Expectations from society are very high we need to introduce this mechanism quite speedily. By the end of November we should have the body that starts reviewing these cases."

There are already signs that judges are eager to fall into line, overturning decisions even without the Georgian Dream appointed ministers in power - and without a transparent use of due process. Relations and family friends close to the new government have already been released from prison: Tamaz Tamazashvili, minister of interior affairs nominee Irakli Garibashvili's father-in-law, was free on bail just days after the election after serving just short of a year on his three and a half year sentence for illegally obtaining a firearm. Vakhtang Subari, jailed for "invoice fraud" in 2010, was freed after the coalition named his brother Sozar for minister over prisons and prohibition.

But the new government will have to do more than release a few prisoners to make a difference, says human rights lawyer Kakha Kozhoridze. He stresses that while he does not know the circumstances for Tamazashvili and Sozar's release, it is vital that cases are reviewed based on the law, not on relations with influential people. "We think it will be better to protect the procedure and protect the law than to release these people without [using the law]," he says. "A lot of people daily are coming in the Tbilisi office and they speak about severe violations about their rights - property rights and other rights. They say that they have been imprisoned during several years unlawfully and they want to renew these cases now. And ask us how they can do this."

Referring to judges' attempts to "save face" and "rectify their own errors," Tsulukiani admits the trend will not help her ministry restore faith in due process. "Due process has not been followed in Georgia for nine years and the main guilt in this lies on judges, because every executive or every legislative body or families too close to the political team in power can commit some kind of errors or crimes, but if there is a judiciary then the population has some feeling of justice, fairness," she says. "This has not been the case in Georgia."

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