Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Opposition under Fire in Georgia

Published in Field Reports
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By Archil Zhorzholiani (the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The post-election period in Georgia, and especially December 2013, has been marked with a new wave of prosecutions against the main opposition party United National Movement (UNM). 

At a court hearing in Kutaisi on December 17, the detained UNM General Secretary and former PM Vano Merabishvili declared that he was two days earlier taken out of his prison cell with a wrapped head and driven presumably to the department of the penitentiary system. In the office, the then chief prosecutor, Otar Partskhaladze allegedly pressed him to help with the investigation of former PM Zurab Zhvania’s death and unveil former President Mikheil Saakshvili’s bank account details to indict the latter for corruption. According to Merabishvili, his conditions in prison would worsen while his friends and relatives would be arrested if he refused. Alternatively, effective cooperation with the prosecutor's office would give him a chance to leave Georgia with “stolen” money.

The UNM called on the government to probe into Merabishvili’s allegations immediately and demanded access to all prison surveillance camera recordings to validate the ex-PM claims. It also demanded that both Otar Partskhaladze and Sozar Subari, the Chief Prosecutor and Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance (MCLA) in charge of penitentiary system, respectively, should be suspended from office.

After a group of twelve NGOs strongly condemned the MCLA’s passive stance, the latter’s general inspection launched an investigation into the alleged wrongdoings conducted by penitentiary system employees regarding Merabishvili’s kidnapping. However, the MCLA has as yet not provided video evidence sufficient to either reject or confirm the former PM's allegations. Merabishvili’s lawyer insisted that the MCLA server keeps surveillance camera materials for a month after which it disappears automatically.

Merabishvili's assertions were followed by another scandal involving Partskhaladze. On December 23, one of the UNM leaders and then Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulva informed the public about the chief prosecutor’s criminal record. He said that Partskhaladze was convicted for robbery in 2001 and served a sentence at the Augsburg prison in Germany. 

The prosecutor’s office initially dismissed the allegations, terming them an attempt by the UNM to damage Partskhaladze’s reputation. The same stance was taken by leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. A day later, however, the chief prosecutor partly admitted that he had an “incident” with German police in 2000 but was sentenced neither for burglary nor for theft. Apart from criminal records, Partskhaladze has also been accused of holding a fake law diploma, which would if true disqualify him from occupying the post of chief prosecutor.

On December 27, PM Gharibashvili acknowledged Partskhaladze’s previous wrongdoings but said that the “noise” over the issue was “exaggerated” in an effort to undermine investigations into high-profile UNM officials. Meanwhile, the PM largely excluded the possibility that Partskhaladze’s would be dismissed. However, three days later Partskhaladze stepped down.

In parallel, without hearing the oral arguments of the parties, the Tbilisi City Court decided on December 26 to suspend Ugulava from the mayor's office on charges of alleged misspending of GEL 48.18 million of public funds. The major point of the court’s verdict was that charges filed against Ugulava were directly linked with his activities as mayor and his stay at the post could hinder the process of gathering evidence in the case. The court’s decision, however, featured legal inconsistencies as it drew upon Article 160 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, stating that the court cannot suspend an official directly but must send a request for that person’s resignation to the head of his institution. As the Tbilisi Mayor is directly elected, there is no superior head capable of enforcing the court's decision, which has brought the case to a legal deadlock. 

The other UNM members, summoned by the prosecutor’s office in December, were Giorgi Ghviniashvili and Kakha Butskhrikidze. They were questioned as part of the ongoing investigation into the high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani committed in 2006. At the time, Ghviniashvili was chief prosecutor in Tbilisi while Butskhrikidze served as a deputy head of the penitentiary department. The prosecutor’s office now probes into claims that four officers, who were sentenced for the crime, had enjoyed “privileged” conditions in prison to cover the involvement of their superiors in the murder case.

The new wave of attacks on the UNM reveals the weakness of the government as well as potential disadvantages that Georgia may face as a result of the reckless steps taken by its authorities.

The failure to timely investigate Merabishvili’s alleged kidnapping put the ruling GD coalition in an embarrassing situation as it came to power promising the “restoration of justice.” The same goes for Partskhaladze’s case. For the post of chief prosecutor, PM Gharibashvili appointed a person with a criminal record who was in charge of determining the lawfulness of others. Evidently, such a malfunction damages the government's prestige and raises serious doubts over its managerial capabilities.

What is most harmful for the country is the removal from office of Tbilisi's mayor, who was directly elected by 55.2 per cent of Tbilisi constituents. This is a harmful precedent against any elected official and distorts the essentials of democracy. The prosecution against Ugulava seems suspicious and political in light of the upcoming local elections where the UNM will likely nominate Ugulava as its candidate for Tbilisi mayor.

In addition to the internal drawbacks, recent developments may boost the EU perceptions of both selective justice and lack of rule of law in Georgia, which will certainly hinder Georgia’s Euro-integration process.

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