An 11-year prison term given in absentia to Georgia's former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili is prompting fresh debate about the impartiality of the country's criminal justice system.
On March 28, the Tbilisi City Court found the ex-minister guilty of extorting shares in Georgian mobile phone network Geocell from a businessman. Prosecutors charged that Okruashvili had purchased the shares, a 2.6 percent stake in the company, at a below-market price of $250,000. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The prosecution originally sought a 13-year jail term for Okruashvili, but the former minister's court-appoint attorneys managed to get the sentence reduced to a minimum of 11 years.
The court also found guilty Dimitri Kitoshvili, a former spokesperson for President Mikheil Saakashvili and former head of the Georgian National Communications Commission. Kitoshvili, who cooperated with prosecutors, received a suspended five-year prison term and a 10,000 lari (over $6,802) fine. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Tbilisi City Court stated that charges of money laundering, abuse of office and work negligence will be considered separately. Okruashvili's defense lawyers Eka Beselia and Lili Gelashvili have accused Tbilisi City Court Judge Giorgi Shavliashvili of political bias, claiming that their ability to mount a legal defense was unfairly hampered. The pair walked out of the trial earlier in March after the judge failed to uphold any of their motions. Other attorneys were appointed in their stead, but Beselia maintained that Okruashvili does not recognize them as his counsel.
"The court took a political decision. The reason behind it is clear: [President] Mikhail Saakashvili wants to take Irakli Okruashvili out of the political arena and not to give him the possibility to take part in the parliamentary elections," stated Beselia, a prominent figure in the political coalition opposed to Saakashvili and a member of Okruashvili's Movement for a United Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Beselia points to the speed with which the trial was conducted -- after a drawn-out break, the process resumed on March 17 -- as a sign that the court had been instructed to deliver a guilty verdict, which, by law, will block Okruashvili from registering for the parliamentary race.
In recent interviews, Okruashvili had indicated that he was considering running in Georgia's May 21 parliamentary race -- presumably, from outside Georgia. Okruashvili is now in Paris awaiting a hearing on a political asylum request. He is also fighting Tbilisi's request for his extradition to Georgia. A Paris court is scheduled to begin hearings on the extradition petition on April 16. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
What impact the Georgian court's decision will have on the government's extradition request remains unknown. The government and senior members of the ruling party -- recently renamed the United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia -- have largely distanced themselves from the trial, declining to speak publicly about the charges against the ex-defense minister.
Independent experts questioned the wisdom of trying Okruashvili in absentia before the French court had had a chance to rule in the extradition case. "Officially, and according to Georgian legislation, the trial can be held without the presence of the person [accused], but when another country is considering the issue of his extradition, not waiting for the decision, in my opinion, raises a question about the violation of the right to a fair trial," commented Giorgi Chkheidze, chairman of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association.
Bidzina Savaneli, an international human rights law specialist at Tbilisi's Georgian Technical University, argued that Tbilisi's actions had complicated the task before the French court. "It [the Tbilisi court verdict] exerted pressure on the French judge who is considering the case, violated the principle of court independence and demonstrated clear disrespect towards the French judiciary," Savaneli said.
The Tbilisi City Court denied that it was seeking to influence the French case. Meanwhile, Okruashvili's defense team says that it is focusing on an appeal -- though attorney Beselia notes that the undertaking is a mere formality, a move required before taking Okruashvili's case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
"We do not expect that Georgia's court will change its unfair decision," said Beselia.
Despite an ongoing series of judicial reform projects, popular faith in Georgia's court system is running low, according to an annual report released recently by the Office of the Public Defender. The report estimated that only about 15 percent of Georgians believe they can get a fair trial. The report alleged that a lack of judicial system independence is the "main reason" for that distrust. "Basically, the registration of decisions already made in other offices is what happens in court," the report found.
Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.