Plans in Georgia to review alleged “shortcomings of justice” dating back to when President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement controlled parliament could lead to a fresh fracas in this developing democracy over the separation of powers among the various branches of government.
Criticism has long dogged the Georgian judicial system, especially allegations of inept rulings and government influence over verdicts. While President Saakashvili, a former lawyer and minister of justice, championed court reform during his party’s nearly nine years in power, international and local human rights groups have slammed Georgian courts’ low acquittal rates, high incarceration rates and heavy use of plea-bargaining.
Reviewing court verdicts from the United National Movement’s (UNM) 2004-2012 tenure as the majority in parliament was a central promise of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition before the 2012 parliamentary elections. But how politics will be kept separate from the pursuit of justice is not entirely clear. A copy of the draft law, obtained by EurasiaNet.org, shows that the Ministry of Justice would establish a 15-member commission to review “shortcomings” in court verdicts handed down from 2005 until October 1, 2012, the day the Georgian Dream won Georgia’s parliamentary elections.
Commission members, to be chosen by the Georgian-Dream-controlled parliament, must be “highly regarded legal specialists” over the age of 30 with “high moral and professional standards.” Criteria for the commission to review a court case ride largely on the punishment adjudicated, or on a discernible disregard for human rights -- an approach that means a broad variety of cases could be eligible. For administrative law cases, for instance, any case that resulted in jail time, or involved disputed property worth 100,000 lari ($60,562) or more could qualify.
The commission would operate for three years, a timeframe that could coincide with Georgia’s next parliamentary elections, in 2016.
Verdicts that the commission found questionable would be referred for review to a special chamber under the Supreme Court. It is unclear if the cases would then be retried by the Supreme Court, or sent back to a lower court. The author of the draft law, Deputy Justice Minister Aleksandre Baramidze, did not respond to interview requests.
Just weeks after the October 2012 election, though, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told EurasiaNet.org that “ a second body that is in charge of reviewing cases” is “probably” needed to “restore the feeling of justice in society, which is not the case now because we do not have a true independent judiciary.”
Georgian Dream leaders argue that the court system, made up of judges appointed by President Saakashvili, remains overly dependent on the government’s executive branch. Tsulukiani has mentioned that the legislation should create unspecified “filters” to separate genuine miscarriages of justice from cases in which citizens were merely unhappy with a verdict. Yet the draft law, in its current wording, does not elaborate in detail on this point.
Senior UNM MP Chiora Taktakishvili, a former deputy chair of parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, called the commission proposal “politically motivated because of the timeframe.”
“If the intent is really to protect the rights of people, then it should be open to [cases from] the [ex-President Eduard] Shevardnadze period and even the Soviet period,” Taktakishvili said. International experts should be consulted so that the commission forms part of “a coherent criminal law,” she added.
President Saakashvili has conceded flaws in the judicial system under the UNM, but argued that “there was no corruption” and that the system “was set up so it could be independent.”
Justice Minister Tsulukiani has repeatedly cited the number of Georgian cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France as a sign of the past injustices in the Georgian court system. In 2012, the ECHR, where Tsulukiani formerly worked, received petitions to hear a whopping 533 cases from Georgia, according to the court’s official website. Only 12 were found admissible.
Gia Gvilava, who monitors the Georgian judicial system for the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia, said those Georgians whose cases are not taken by the ECHR are left “without anything, no remedies.” The lack of guarantees for a fair and free trial in Georgia has made the ECHR the court of “last instance,” he said.
But lawyers and human rights advocates caution that the proposed commission cannot become a one-stop shop for judicial “remedies.”
Reviewing eligible court verdicts since 2005 would likely take longer than the commission’s proposed three-year time limit, they say. The proposed criteria for review do little to restrict the scope of work.
While the draft law proposes a one-year extension of the commission’s lifespan if parliament deems it necessary, that still would not give the commission enough time to consider the “thousands” of petitions it is likely to receive, predicted Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in the South Caucasus. The flood “might be overwhelming,” he added.
Already, over the past month, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) has received more than 100 petitions for help with appealing to the yet-to-be-formed commission for a verdict review, said GYLA Chairperson Kakha Kozhoridze.
Like Transparency International Georgia, Kozhoridze believes that as many cases as possible should be reviewed to deal with the courts’ “systematic” problems.
But how to make sure that equal justice for all prevails could prove the ultimate question, warned Human Rights Watch’s Gogia.
“Selective justice or selective amnesty or selective prosecution is not good,” he said. “You have to create equal opportunities for everyone.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.