Justice System Against Opponents of the Government
Recently, representatives of Georgia's partner countries and international organizations have increasingly indicated troubling trends in terms of the country’s democratic development. Along with the electoral system, Western partners' statements focus on the problems of independence of the judiciary and Prosecutor’s Office and prosecution of political opponents.
Obviously, no one should be immune from the liability if a crime has been committed, although criminal cases against political opponents and representatives of the critical media outlets reveal several suspicious circumstances – the process of the investigations, the timing and context of launching of the criminal prosecutions, and analysis of other events lead the conclusion that the justice system has been acting in agreement with the ruling party and it has been used as a tool for political reprisals. Specifically:
- The launching of criminal prosecution and/or implementation of investigative actions against leaders of opposition political parties or representatives of the critical media outlets have mainly coincided with the intensification of their criticism of the authorities;
- The cases have been frequently examined by judges close to the so-called clan of the judiciary;
- In most of the cases, there has been insufficient evidence to launch a criminal prosecution or right to a fair trial has been unduly restricted.
According to publicly available information, nine individuals who are leaders of opposition parties or founders of critical media outlets are under an investigation or have been indicted or convicted. Two of the politicians are members of the European Georgia party, while one is a member of the United National Movement (UNM). According to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), it is precisely these parties that enjoy the biggest public support after the Georgian Dream party. Other than this, two persons are founders of the new political association Lelo which has large resources and potential to attract public support.
1. Gigi Ugulava – Secretary-General of the political party European Georgia – Movement for Freedom
The so-called case of Tbilisi Development Fund
On December 18, 2013, the Prosecutor’s Office brought charges against Gigi Ugulava in connection with the so-called case of the Tbilisi Development Fund. The investigation authorities charged the former Mayor of Tbilisi with embezzlement of state funds allocated for the rehabilitation and development of the capital city.
On February 28, 2018, the Tbilisi City Court changed the indictment and instead of embezzlement convicted Mr. Ugulava of the abuse of power. This verdict was upheld by the Tbilisi Court of Appeals. On February 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia deliberated on the cassation without an oral hearing, fully agreed with the initial position of the Prosecutor’s Office, overturned the previous judgments and convicted Mr Ugulava of embezzlement. Mr. Ugulava, the leader of the opposition party who had already served a sentence for the abuse of power and was at liberty, was sentenced to imprisonment for three years, two months, and eight days.
2. Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze – Founders of the TBC Bank and political union Lelo for Georgia
On August 2, 2018, an investigation was launched against the founders of TBC Bank, the former Chairperson of the Supervisory Board, Mamuka Khazaradze, and his deputy, Badri Japaridze, in connection with a transaction made 10 years ago. On July 24, 2019, Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze were indicted for money laundering.
Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze relate the criminal prosecution to the construction of the “Anaklia deep-sea port'' and attempts to distance them from political processes. The investigation was preceded by Bidzina Ivanishvili's criticism of TBC Bank on First Channel. In addition, on March 4, 2019, during his speech at a session of the Budget and Finance Committee of the Parliament, Mamuka Khazaradze stated that before the second round of the presidential elections of 2018, he had received a letter containing threats from the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. According to Mr. Khazaradze, the author of the letter demanded to carry through three points, including making a public statement appealing voters to support Salome Zurabishvili on the second round of the presidential elections.
In her assessment of the charges against Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, the Public Defender explained that the case materials do not contain the elements necessary for assessing an action as a crime of money laundering.
3. Nikanor Melia – Chairperson of the Political Board of the political party United National Movement
The so-called case of June 20
On June 25, 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia indicted Nikanor Melia for the management and participation in group violence at the rally held in front of the Parliament building on June 20-21. On the same day, the Prosecutor’s Office sent a letter to the Parliament with a request to strip Nikanor Melia of the parliamentary immunity.
The application submitted by the Prosecutor General appeared to be based on a template, contained shortcomings and failed to properly present a number of important aspects confirming the need to apply pre-trial detention. In spite of the foregoing, on June 26, 2019, the Parliament, at the special sitting and against the background of the boycott by opposition parties, stripped Mr. Melia of parliamentary immunity.
On June 27, 2019, the court imposed bail. However, it also prohibited Nikanor Melia from leaving his place of residence, engaging in any type of communication with witnesses, making public statements in public places without asking permission from the investigative body, as well as imposed surrendering an identity document and authorized electronic monitoring.
While assessing the application of the aforementioned preventive measures, the Public Defender stated that additional obligations imposed on MP Nikanor Melia might constitute a disproportional restriction on the exercise of MP’s mandate.
The so-called case of bankruptcy of Cartu Bank
In 2013, the Prosecutor’s Office indicted Nikanor Melia in the so-called case of bankruptcy of Cartu Bank. On December 2, 2019, the Tbilisi City Court found Nikanor Melia innocent of concealment of property using fraudulent and sham transactions, but found him guilty of abuse of official powers and imposed a fine of GEL 25,000 on him.
On December 13, 2019, the Parliament of Georgia with 88 votes prematurely terminated the MP’s powers of Nikanor Melia without waiting for the decision of the higher courts. On February 4, 2020, the Plenum of the Constitutional Court of Georgia admitted the claim of Nikanor Melia regarding the constitutionality of early termination of his powers as an MP for consideration on the merits. The unconstitutionality of the early termination of the powers of Nikanor Melia was also indicated by the Public Defender of Georgia.
At the same time, the Prosecutor’s Office appealed the judgment of the Tbilisi City Court, and the hearing on this matter has been scheduled for March 10. Nikanor Melia has expressed an assumption that the court was planning to change his verdict and sentence him to imprisonment, similarly to the case of Gigi Ugulava.
4. Irakli Okruashvili – Founder of the political party Victorious Georgia
On June 25, 2019, Irakli Okruashvili was arrested on the charges of management and participation in group violence at the rally held in front of the Parliament building on June 20-21, 2019. According to officials, the politician, along with his companions, called on the protesters and himself attempted a violent intrusion into the parliament building. Mr. Okruashvili remains under pre-trial detention to this day.
On November 19, 2019, a new charge was brought against Irakli Okruashvili. The Prosecutor’s Office is accusing Mr. Okruashvili of abuse of official powers in connection with a crime allegedly committed in 2004 when he was the Minister of Internal Affairs. It is noteworthy that the indictment took place several days before the expiration of the 15-year limitation period for prosecution.
The initiation of prosecution against Mr. Okruashvili was preceded by his scandalous statements in which he openly stated that he had helped the authorities in criminal cases against high-ranking officials of the previous government. In addition, he openly stated that in 2016 he had received a demand to abandon his clams in connection with the Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company, which he refused to do so.
5. Giga Bokeria – Chairperson of the Political Board of the political party European Georgia – Movement for Freedom
Since 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Georgia has been investigating a criminal case regarding possible abuse of powers by officials of the National Security Council of Georgia. The public is not informed of details of the case, as the case is classified. On December 16, 2019, five years after the investigation was launched, Giga Bokeria, who is a former Secretary of the Security Council, was interviewed before a magistrate judge.
6. Giorgi Rurua – Shareholder and investor of the critical media outlet Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel)
On November 18, 2019, Giorgi Rurua was arrested on the charges of illegal purchase, storage, and carrying of firearms, and later sent to pre-trial detention. On December 25, 2019, an additional charge was brought against Mr. Rurua under the article of failure to comply with a court ruling and obstruction of its execution.
Transparency International Georgia submitted an amicus curiae brief on this case in which the organization pointed out a number of procedural violations during Mr. Rurua’s personal search and other investigative actions. Other than this, Mr. Rurua was deprived of his right to a lawyer and the right against self-incrimination. The investigative authorities have repeatedly neglected the requirements of the Criminal Procedure Code of Georgia and unlawfully restricted Giorgi Rurua's rights and freedoms.
7. Nika Gvaramia – Founder and Director-General of the critical media outlet Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel), former Director-General of the Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company
As part of the investigation launched by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Georgia on July 20, 2019, on August 9 charges against Nika Gvaramia were brought. The Prosecutor’s Office has accused him of abusing his powers when he was the Director-General of the Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company. On September 6, additional charges were brought against Nika Gvaramia with regard to illegal embezzlement of a large amount of property, commercial bribery, production and use of a fake official document, and money laundering.
In her assessment of the charges against Nika Gvaramia, the Public Defender stated that a decision made by the director of a company should not be subject to criminal liability, and it can only be imposed to corporate legal liability in extraordinary circumstances.
As part of the same case, on October 2, 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned Zurab Gumbaridze, Director-General of the critical media outlet Formula TV, to an interview.
8. Avtandil Tsereteli – Father of the founder of the critical media outlet TV Pirveli
On August 22, 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office brought charges against Avtandil Tsereteli. The Prosecutor’s Office is accusing Avtandil Tsereteli of assistance Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze in the money laundering case.
On August 27, 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office filed a motion with the court requesting bail against the accused in the amount of GEL 500,000, which was fully granted by the Tbilisi City Court. Vato Tsereteli (founder of TV Pirveli) stated that he would have to take out a mortgage on the building of the TV station to provide the bail imposed on his father.
Exploiting the justice system with the aim of maintaining political power is a form of political corruption. The circumstances of the aforementioned criminal cases, including protracted or ineffective investigation, the timing and context of launching criminal prosecution, as well as violations of rights revealed in the course of investigation, give rise to a well-founded assumption that the Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary has been acting in agreement with the ruling party and their aim is to distance individuals critical of the authorities from political processes rather than the purpose of the administration of justice.