Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs must uphold the presumption of innocence
In a televised interview regarding the murder of prosecutor Vakhtang Kiria deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Archil Talakvadze stated that “basically it has already been established that Bidzina Kuchava is the killer of prosecutor Vakhtang Kiria”. Kuchava’s lawyer considers this statement a violation of the presumption of innocence. The deputy minister later went on to deny the accusation by stating that the prosecution is tasked with proving a defendant’s guilt and does not carry the obligation and burden to uphold the presumption of innocence.
It should be stated upfront that since Bidzina Kuchava is deceased his constitutional right to presumption of innocence cannot exist. However, attention should be paid to the deputy minister’s incorrect understanding of the essence of the presumption of innocence, a systemic problem in Georgia. The 2014 OSCE report on Georgia includes systemic violations of the presumption of innocence as a problematic issue.
The presumption of innocence is an important element of a fair trial. According to the presumption, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty through legal procedures and based on final court judgment of conviction. The essence and scope of this principle is explained in the practice of international courts and other human rights bodies.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, the presumption of innocence prohibits public officials from referring to the guilt of accused person in ongoing cases before the court's final decision. The presumption of innocence is violated by statements made by public officials that encourage the public into believing the accused committed a crime, or that may hinder the court in objectively assessing the facts of the case. The European Court explains that this, of course, does not prohibit relevant authorities from informing the public about ongoing cases, however, it is important that only facts are provided and public statements are not declarative and assertive regarding the guilt of the accused.
The European Court of Human Rights has explained in a number of its decisions that apart from public officials the commitment to uphold the presumption of innocence also applies to the prosecution. For example, in its 2010 decision on the case of Fatullayev v. Azerbaijan the European Court found a statement made by the general prosecutor asserting a person’s guilt during a television interview to be a violation of the presumption of innocence. The Court stressed the fact that the statement was made not in court within the format of criminal case proceedings, but rather in the form of a television interview. In addition to talking about the facts related to the case during the interview the prosecutor also made evaluative and assertive statements regarding the accused’s guilt.
The European Court found a violation of the presumption of innocence based on similar arguments in its 2008 decisions on the cases of Vitan c. Roumanie and Cionca c. Roumanie, as well as the 2002 decision on the case of Butkevičius v. Lithuania. These cases also concerned media statements made by the prosecution regarding the defendant’s guilt. In contrast, in the case of Daktaras v. Lithuania, the Court did not find a violation of the presumption of innocence, since statements made by the prosecution were made within the format of case proceedings and not outside of it, for example at a press conference.
To summarize, the practice of the European Court shows that the commitment to uphold the presumption of innocence also applies to the prosecution when a statement is made not within the format of criminal case proceedings in court, but rather during a press conference or a television interview. In such cases, it is important that the information provided to the public be only composed of facts devoid of evaluative and declarative discussion.
The practice of the United Nations Human Rights Committee also recognized the possibility of violation of the presumption of innocence by investigating authorities. In the case of Gridin v. Russia the Human Rights Committee considered statements made to the media by a police officer regarding the guilt of a defendant a violation of the presumption of innocence.
We believe that the deputy minister’s statement made to the media asserting the guilt of the accused and claiming that the commitment to uphold the presumption of innocence does not apply to the prosecution is not in line with international standards of upholding the presumption of innocence that are mandatory for Georgia. Moreover, the deputy minister is neither the investigator nor the prosecutor on this particular case, but rather a senior official, who are required to uphold the presumption of innocence even more rigorously.
We call on all public officials and investigative bodies to follow the constitutional and international standards of human rights protection in their activities and to refrain from making public statements on ongoing criminal cases that are contrary to these standards.