At a special briefing yesterday, the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Giorgi Papuashvili, stated that there has been recent targeted pressure against Constitutional Court Judges. He said that judges are under surveillance and have been threatened. The issue is particularly grave given that the constitutional court at the moment is discussing a number of cases of public interest, among them the ownership of Rustavi 2 TV and the imprisonment of former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava.
Constitutional Court Chairman Papuashvili stated that: “Judges have been blackmailed and told that their relatives’ commercial activities would be targeted and that their relatives would be arrested, for different reasons. There are also threats of exposing falsified information about their private lives. The pressure is directed towards cases of public interest and aims at either extending the judges’ decision making process, or to persuade them to make a decide in line with the government’s interests.”
Papuashvili said he will not disclose more information in order to protect sensitive and private details. He said he decided to speak out publicly in order to prevent future blackmail against the judges: “We need to keep these alarming facts in check, so that the constitutional court carries its work under normal conditions and so that every single decision is based on law and consciousness, and not on threats or pressure. This is important not only for the Constitutional Court to function efficiently, but also for the democratic development of the country.”
Papuashvili declined to single out whether the pressure on judges was connected specifically with the Rustavi 2 case, but said he was willing to discuss it directly with the authorities.
The General Prosecutor’s Office summoned Papuashvili for detailed information about the alleged pressure against the judges; they said they would take relevant legal measures if Papuashvili provides them with detailed information.
There are several major cases being discussed in the Constitutional Court, among them the case of former Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava, the Rustavi 2 case, and the case of electoral districts.
Yesterday the Court announced a decision over redrawing the borders of electoral districts. The complainants -- 42 Members of the Parliament -- were arguing that the government was using gerrymandering tactics and redistricting in order to alter the results of the election in their favour. According to the case, the number of voters is not equally distributed in all the electoral districts and the borders established by the Central Election Commission limit the opposition’s chances of winning particular districts, and favour the current government. The Constitutional Court did not uphold the claim. Another claim by the complainants also did not stand, that the CEC is not authorized to redraw the borders of certain districts. The Constitutional Court declared that the CEC’s right to redraw electoral borders does not contradict the constitution. The issue of redistricting, however, was raised by the Venice Commission in a March 2016 report: It said that the changes in electoral redistricting are do not specify the methods of establishing constituencies. The Commission also pointed out that the amendments were adopted without the involvement of relevant stakeholders during the drafting process.
Another case in question in the Constitutional Court is a complaint from former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava. Ugulava filed a lawsuit questioning the validity of the 14th Article of the Criminal Code as vague and unclear. Ugulava and his lawyers think that the articles on embezzlement, appropriation, and abuse of power can be easily interpreted and used in an unconstitutional manner by the prosecution. They argue that these offenses are not legally well-defined and leave room for broad interpretation. In a previous case, the Court upheld Ugulava’s case against the Parliament and found that the clause in the Criminal Procedure Code on pre-trial detention to be unconstitutional. Ugulava spent 14 months in pre-trial detention and argued that keeping an individual in pre-trial detention for more than nine months is unconstitutional. The Court decision was close scrutinized by the media and civil society, since one of the Constitutional Court judges, Merab Turava, was absent when the announcement was made and his signature was also absent from the decision. Civil society representatives accused there was pressure from the government. The Court was planning to announce the decision on the 15th of September 2015, however since Judge Turava was ill (and he was accused of trying to buy time), the announcement was postponed. The Court decided to go on the next day to announce the decision anyways.
In the Rustavi 2 case, the Constitutional Court accepted two complaints for discussion. Judge Turava had requested that the Rustavi 2 base be discussed on the plenum -- which he is able to do according to recently passed and controversial amendments to the law. The management of Rustavi 2 TV claims that Turava tried to extend the decision-making process. They addressed the court several times warning that the legitimacy of the upcoming October 2016 elections depended on the court’s decision.
In November 2015, in relation to the Rustavi 2 case, the Constitutional Court suspended the application of the clauses of the civil procedure code that allowed for the immediate enforcement of verdicts, so that the TV station would not be immediately taken over by new management when it lost an ownership dispute. The court later also suspended the clauses that envisage passing on management, representation, and leadership powers to temporary managers for media outlets, as an interim measure to secure the enforcement of the court’s decision. Rustavi 2 and opposition parties (United National Movement and Free Democrats) see the ownership dispute as a political move, considering that the channel is critical of the Georgian Dream government. The General Director of Rustavi 2, Nika Gvaramia, has said numerous times that that Georgian Dream seeks to take over the company. On June 10, the Appellate Court announced its decision to leave the previous verdict of the Tbilisi City Court unchanged, which ruled that 100% of the assets of Rustavi 2 are the property of former owner Kibar Khalvashi and his company Panorama. Phaty Khalvashi, sister of Kiber Khalvashi, is member of the Georgian Dream and their MP from Kobuleti District. Kiber Khalvashi, filed a lawsuit in August 2015 to claim back his shares of the company. Khalvashi was a co-owner of Rustavi 2 in 2004-2006. Rustavi 2 is the biggest TV network in Georgia with the largest audience. It voices critical opinions of the government. International and local organizations have called upon the Georgian government to refrain from taking over the opposition-minded channel. The Rustavi 2 case has gained more importance and attention as the election campaign is officially underway in Georgia.
Furthermore, the debates were sparked after recent amendments to the ‘organic law’ on the constitutional court that elicited an objection from the Venice Commission, opposition parties, and civil society. The Republican Party, which was at the time part of the Georgian Dream coalition, was also against the amendments. The amendments change the appointment procedure of the judges, limit their terms, increase the quorum for passing a decision, and allow the plenum of judges to discuss a case even if only one of the judges deems it necessary. The Venice Commission maintained that the increase of quorum is “excessive” and recommended to abolish it. Opposition parties and Rustavi 2 argued that the changes were motivated to try to influence the decision over the TV station’s case. The bill was rushed through the parliament and voted into law despite the large disagreements.
Over the past year the Constitutional Court has been in the center of ongoing, high-profile cases. The international community, diplomatic representations, and civil society have continuously urged the Court to make decisions according to law and not political wills.