The Constitutional Court is discussing whether or not to postpone its deliberation over a number of cases of public interest. The discussion follows a recent statement from the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Giorgi Papuashvili, regarding targeted pressure and blackmail against judges. Certain judges in the Court are in favour of postponing examining the cases until the Prosecutor's Office reviews whether there was blackmail against the judges. The Court was prepared to start examining the case of former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava and the ‘Cables Case.’ The motion to postpone the deliberations was introduced by Judge Lali Papiashvili and was supported by judges Otar Sichinava, Zaza Tavadze, and Merab Turava. Ugulava’s lawyers and the lawyers of the defendants in the Case of Cables protested that the motion to postpone the deliberations is further proof of pressure on the judiciary.
At a special briefing yesterday, the Constitutional Court Chairman Papuashvili revealed that: “Judges have been ...told that their relatives’ commercial activities would be targeted and that their relatives would be arrested. 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 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.”
The General Prosecutor’s Office after summoned Papuashvili for detailed information about the alleged pressure against the judges.
Cases Under Discussion in the Constitutional Court
The Constitutional Court dicusses several major cases -- among them the case of former Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava, the ownership case of Rustavi 2 TV, the case on electoral redistricting, and the Cables Case.
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. The complainants point out that the number of voters is not equally distributed in all the electoral districts, and that 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 case 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 is trying 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 some opposition parties (namely the United National Movement and Free Democrats) see the ownership dispute as a political move, since the TV 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, 2016, 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, Kibar Khalvashi’s sister, is a member of the Georgian Dream and a GD MP from the Kobuleti District. Khalvashi had filed a lawsuit in August 2015 to claim back his shares of the company; he was a co-owner of Rustavi 2 in 2004-2006.
Another case that has garnered major attention is the Cables Case, in which five employees of the Ministry of Defense were arrested for allegedly misappropriating 4.1 million GEL (about USD 1.8 million)in a fraud tender in 2013 for laying fiber-optic cables. Tbilisi City Court sentenced the men to 7 years of prison. Their arrests in 2014 caused the Free Democrats to leave the Georgian Dream coalition, and the leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, was fired from his post of Defense Minister. Alasania claimed that the charges against the Defense Ministry employees were politically motivated. Non-government organizations, among them the Young Lawyers Association of Georgia (GYLA), called the verdict “unfair, unjustified, unlawful.” The defendants’ lawyers are challenging article 182 of the criminal code on embezzlement.
There have also been objections to recent amendments to the ‘organic law’ being discussed in the constitutional court, from the Venice Commission, opposition parties, and civil society. 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.
The Constitutional Court has been in the center of ongoing, high-profile cases over the past year. The international community, diplomatic representations, and civil society have continuously urged the Court to make decisions according to law and not political wills.