Georgia took a quantum leap forward in its democratization process when President Mikheil Saakashvili provided for a smooth transfer of power following his party’s defeat at the ballot box in early October. But rights advocates worry the incoming government headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili could quickly erase the gains that have been made, if it succumbs to public pressure and gets bogged down in efforts to right perceived wrongs committed by members of the outgoing team.
With a new government soon to be in power in Georgia, many Georgians are clamoring for revenge for alleged past wrongs. Many want relatives out of jail; others want property back. Some simply want officials suspected of abuses called to account for their conduct.
But Georgian human rights advocates warn that moving too fast on any of these counts would only cause further damage the country’s already troubled judicial system.
Popular expectations for change ride both on the opposition Georgian Dream coalition’s convincing victory in Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections, and on the Georgian court system’s longtime reputation as an enforcer of the executive branch’s will, an institution systematically incapable of applying the law impartially.
From the suspicious death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005 to the mass military arrests in the alleged 2009 Mukhrovani mutiny, there is no end to the number of cases that many Georgians want to see reopened.
“Enormous” pressure now exists on the Georgian Dream to meet those expectations, said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus senior researcher for the New-York-City-based Human Rights Watch.
“It is not an easy task; it is a very daunting task,” Gogia addded. “I have heard some say now the prisoners will be released. Now, suddenly, everyone will be free and everyone will have justice.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Tea Tsulukiani, the Georgian Dream’s 37-year-old nominee as minister of justice and a former lawyer for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, emphasized that “there will be no revenge” in addressing past legal injustices, “but, at the same time, no past crimes will remain unpunished.”
In particular, many critics of President Mikheil Saakashvili hope that standard will be applied to ex-Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who is widely scorned for his perceived tolerance of the use of torture in Georgian prisons. Tsulukiani said that both Akhalaia and outgoing Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili have left the country, and their whereabouts are not known, but added that criminal cases have not been filed against either individual.
Restoring “a feeling of justice” to Georgian society will be a top priority for the new government, she emphasized. “[W]e do not have a true, independent judiciary,” Tsulukiani said.
“We have a huge number of illegal prisoners.”
She defined such prisoners as individuals in jail “because of their political activities,” or those placed behind bars without sufficient evidence. She could not say precisely how many prisoners met these criteria.
Efforts to revisit past criminal cases and, potentially, to change past court rulings could easily overwhelm Georgia’s court system, and touch off a vicious cycle of retribution that could prove hard to stop. According to official data, there are currently 23,000 prisoners in Georgia, compared with 8,000 when the United National Movement came to power in 2003. The country’s rate of incarceration – 531 per 100,000 people – ranks as one of the world’s highest. Gia Gvilava, a lawyer specializing in property rights violations at Transparency International Georgia, an anti-corruption watchdog, estimates that reopening property rights cases alone could have a “huge” impact on the judicial system.
By November, Tsulukiani said, the Justice Ministry will set up a committee of highly esteemed, secular “public figures, experts and personalities” to review petitions to reopen cases.
Already, signs exist that judges and prosecutors are eager to fall into line with that new modus operandi; albeit not necessarily with the use of due process, critics charge.
Just days after his son-in-law, Irakli Gharibashvili, was nominated as interior minister, former regional police boss Tamaz Tamazashvili, a close friend of Bidzina Ivanishvili, was released on bail from a 3.5-year prison sentence for illegal firearm possession.
Similarly, shortly after his brother, Sozar, was proposed as the new prisons minister, Vakhtang Subari was released from jail for alleged “invoice fraud,” a charge on which he had been detained in 2010.
But cherry-picking cases that affect friends and family members of Georgian-Dream leaders will not be enough to rectify the alleged wrongs of the past, argued Tbilisi-based human-rights lawyer Kakha Kozhoridze. “If anyone is [an] illegal prisoner, he or she should be released based on the law and … not because we have a new government and some prisoners have influential people in the new government,” Kozhoridze said.
Tsulukiani agreed, saying that the trend will not help her ministry promote public confidence in due process of the law.
Ensuring the independence of judges – a longtime alleged objective of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s outgoing government as well – is a crucial task, Tsulukiani said. To achieve that objective, reforms are planned that will address the bodies overseeing Georgian judges, the High Council of Justice and the Supreme Court, including restricting the powers of the Supreme Court chairperson, she said.
Popular expectations for such changes, though, could prove a double-edged sword for Georgia’s new cabinet, Human Rights Watch’s Gogia cautioned. In 2003, Saakashvili also rode to power on a heady wave of hope that amends would be made for past wrongs, but the result, Gogia argued, was a setback for human rights and due process.
The key, commented Transparency International’s Gvilava, is not to rush a reform campaign. “You cannot do this in one or two days; not even in one term of the parliament,” Gvilava said. “Four years won’t be enough to fully reinstate all of the rights.”