The tension surrounding the constitutional court has grown as the hearings of high profile cases, such as the Gigi Ugulava and Cables’ cases, were postponed on the 2nd of August. Many believe the cases are being purposefully dragged by the government. Tensions regarding the court reemerged after a July 21 briefing from the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, where he announced there has been targeted pressure on the judges and attempts to influence their decision-making, particularly on cases of public interest. The Prosecutor’s Office soon after opened an investigation. The judges who did not attend the August 2nd hearings explained that they were not there mainly because of the Prosecutor’s Office investigation, saying it created an unstable work environment.
Five of the judges were absent from the hearing, while three of them were in meetings with the diplomatic corps in Tbilisi. The Constitutional Court is located in the city of Batumi. A minimum of six judges are needed for a plenum in the Constitutional Court and for proceedings to continue.
The judges also attributed their non-attendance to procedural problems surrounding the Cables’ Case. The Cables’ Case concerns five employees of the Ministry of Defense that were arrested for allegedly misappropriating 4.1 million GEL in 2013 in a fraud tender for laying fiber-optic cables. Their arrests in 2014 caused the Free Democrats party 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. The accused men were sentenced to 7 years in prison in May 2016. They are still challenging the case in the Constitutional Court, particularly the articles on embezzlement, appropriation, and abuse of power, arguing that it can be easily misinterpreted and used in an unconstitutional manner by the prosecution.
The other case of major public interest is the imprisonment of former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava. In September 2015, Ugulava’s pretrial detention -- which lasted more than 9 months -- was upheld as unconstitutional. However, there was an attempt from a government-appointed judge in the Constitutional Court to prolong the process on the decision. The judge, Merab Turava, was not present at the announcement of the ruling on the Ugulava case and his signature was absent from the decision. Judge Turava claimed he was ill to explain his absence from the high-profile ruling, and the announcement was postponed. Critics accused him of trying to buy time, by not allowing the ruling to come into effect and to keep Ugulava behind bars. Ugulava opened a new case in the Constitutional Court challenging the same articles on embezzlement, appropriation, and abuse of power.
Furthermore, recent amendments in May 2016 to the ‘organic law’ on the constitutional court sparked major concerns about the court’s functioning, particularly about the law allowing to prolong making decisions on cases. The new bill allows for there to be hearing even if there is only one judge on the plenum, at any stage of the case; with a plenum a case can be entirely reexamined. The Venice Commission recommended to abolish the bill. Opposition parties said that the changes were motivated to try to influence the decision over the Rustavi 2TV case, Ugulava’s and Cables’ Case. The bill was rushed through the parliament and voted into law despite major objections.
At a special briefing on July 21, the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Giorgi Papuashvili announced that judges are being pressured in the form of threats and surveillance: “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,” he said.
The Prosecutor’s Office interviewed eight judges on July 28 within the investigation; and, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, all of them denied that they experienced any kind of pressure during their testimonies. However, before her interview Constitutional Court judge Ketevan Eremadze had told the media that she knew about pressure on judges, and that she would be able to give specific names of who was targeted. “I feel responsible to give the information I have to the investigation,” she said. Eremadze admitted that she herself was not the target of pressure.
On the 29th of July, five judges of the Constitutional Court wrote a letter to the chairman, Giorgi Papuashvili, saying that he has rushed through discussions on politically-sensitive cases on the court’s agenda, including the “Rustavi 2 Case”, the “Gigi Ugulava Case”, and the ‘Cables’ case.’ Other judges responded otherwise, saying that the judges together had agreed on the court agenda.
Tabula spoke with the judges who were absent from the August 2nd briefing dedicated to the Ugulava and Cables cases, among others. According to ECHR practice, the court agenda and urgency of cases should be determined by their social and political importance. The fundamental human rights of six individuals are dependent on these cases. In an interview with Tabula, Judge Otar Sitchinava stated that there are many lawsuits that are equally as important on the agenda, even though they are not of political interest. In response to the question of what determines the priority for cases to be discussed, Sitchinava answered: “We will make decisions from these [ECHR and Venice Commission] and other factors on what to discuss and when.” Sitchinava continued that it’s not for the media, politicians, or diplomats to know about when the judges are meeting and when they are not attending those meetings
In a separate interview with Tabula, Judge Lali Papiashvili tried to explain why the scheduled hearing was not held. She said it’s an approved practice to postpone a hearing and that the judges have worked late hours due to the urgency of the cases. She explained that judges met with the diplomatic corps in Tbilisi that day in order to provide them with information about the Court, and to explain them that nothing extraordinary was happening: “The aim of the meeting was to give a clear message to the embassies that there’s nothing extraordinary happening in the court,” she said. “We only request to have reasonable time for decision-making on cases.” She also said to the media that judges didn’t want to hinder the working process of the court, and that their absence from the hearing was not a protest.Papiashvili said, however, that if the situation surrounding the Court doesn’t cool down, the judges would have to reveal more information regarding pressure on them.
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 groups have continuously urged the Court to make decisions according on law and not on political wills. On August 3, there was a full plenum of nine judges for a hearing in the Constitutional Court to hear different lawsuits prepared by NGOs.