Batumi Anti-Government Protesters Could Face Many Years in Prison
There has been significant discussion about the lack of judiciary independence in Georgia. Non-governmental and international organizations, as well as representative of other countries have recently put a particular emphasis on the importance of an independent judiciary as a key pillar of democracy. A weak judiciary, along with a weak parliament, is a threat for possible abuse of power by the executive branch of the government. Reports by various international organizations frequently mention the selective enforcement of law and call for the application of Georgia’s supreme principles. In this blog, we are describing a particular case in detail, about seven persons arrested during manifestation in Batumi on the 22nd of May. Court hearings related to this case continue to date and represent an example of the complex problems in the judiciary. Confess, and you will get two years in jail and a fine of GEL 2,000 - these conditions were offered by the prosecutor to seven protesters, David Partenadze, Vakhtang Sioridze, Anzor Solomonidze, Gicha Muxashavria, Dima Tcheishvili, Khvicha Gamarjobadze, Tariel Putkaradze in Batumi, according to Mzia Diasamidze, a lawyer representing several of the accused. The participants of the protest rally are accused of having blocked access to the building of Adjara TV, a broadcaster that is part of the local government in Batumi. If sentenced under Article 222 of the Georgian Criminal Code, the protesters could face two to four years in prison for having blocked access to a broadcaster. In addition, under Article 353 of the Georgian Criminal Code, the men could face four to seven years in prison for resistance against police. Several of the accused have tried to negotiate plea bargaining agreements with prosecutors ahead of a court hearing that took place on September 7. Plea bargaining is widely used in Georgian criminal cases. In this case, no agreements were reached as the prosecution has insisted on at least two to three years of prison for the accused, according to Diasamidze. In July, one of the accused, Tariel Putkaradze, pleaded guilty of having blocked the state TV station, agreed to testify against the other protesters and was released from jail. Nonetheless, he continues to attend the court hearings. Plea bargaining continues to be an extensively used practice in the Georgian judicial system. In 2010, Courts of First Instances had a 98.3% conviction rate, including plea agreements. Courts heard cases in a main hearing against 4,089 people, of which eight persons (0.2%) were acquitted and 54 (1.2%) were partially acquitted, according to a report by the Council of Europe. In a recent analysis, TI Georgia found that the Georgian judicial system suffers from shortcomings in transparency, accountability and independence. The detention of the protesters is largely based on the prosecution’s claim that the men blocked the entrance of Adjara TV and prevented anybody from exiting and entering the building. However, the weekly newspaper Batumelebi, which has been closely following the case, writes that the building of Adjara TV, in fact, has two entrances. The paper has also produced video footage showing employees of Adjara TV using the back entrance, contradicting five government-employed media workers who told investigators that they were facing serious problems in carrying out their professional duties because of the protesters in front of the building. An Adjara TV producer, Tsira Surmanidze, argued that she could not send journalists to cover a story because of the protest outside the building. The director of Adjara TV testified in court that the second entrance to the building was mainly used by technicians and not by journalists. “The issue around the entrance is a real scandal and any statement on this may cost me my job”, one Adjara TV employee who requested anonymity told Batumelebi. The court so far has not taken into account the results of the newspaper’s research. Three police officers, Amiran Devadze, Merab Abashidze, and Vakhtang Arzenadze testified as witnesses of the prosecution in court. Neither of them could name the policemen that were attacked by any of the accused; however, they said that their colleagues had been physically attacked and shoved by protesters and that they would recognize the faces of colleagues who were hit. All three officers stated that the policemen who they claimed were beaten by the defendants were wearing civilian clothing during the incident. One of the protesters’ defendants had received information, claiming that one of the eye witnesses of the prosecution who was testifying against the protesters was not in Batumi on the day of the protests. Judge Vera Dolidze declined the lawyer’s request, asking for the release of mobile phone tracking records to clarify if he actually was on the location of the protest on May 21. The judge also did not satisfy the defense’s request to question a representative of Adjara’s Public Defender office who claimed that he saw one of the accused, Gocha M., in another part of the city at the time the protest took place, according to the defense. Vakhtang Sioridze, one of the accused, pleaded guilty and asked the judge to set him free, arguing that his wife was suffering from advanced cancer and that he was the only bread-winner to feed his two kids. According to Dasamidze, Sioridze’s lawyer presented a letter from his doctor, stating that his client is suffering from severe mental problems. The judge turned down the request and Sioridze remains in detention. Judge Vera Dolidze refused to allow audio recording by journalists inside the court room, according to court observers. The court case continues and the accused protesters could face seven to 11 years in prison (sentences for different crimes are added up in the Georgian legal system), if found guilty. According to the editor-in chief of Batumelebi, Eter Turadze, who has closely followed court cases in Batumi, judge Dolidze is known for a low rate of acquittals in her cases. “In the past three years, I can only remember one non-guilty verdict, in a case a few weeks ago”, Turadze says. With the chances of an innocent verdict in Georgian criminal courts so slim, the charging, sentencing and plea bargaining arrangements are so discretionary in practice that in all but a few cases, the criminal justice system in fact is the plea bargaining system. This system, in which cases are settled for large but undisclosed amounts of money, is largely controlled by prosecutors. In a year ahead of very important elections, cases like this one in Batumi, if not managed in a fair way, might be sending very dangerous signal to the Georgian population: If they attend anti-government demonstrations, they could end up behind bars for years.