On November 21, the Supreme Court of Georgia began hearings concerning the ownership of Rustavi 2 television channel. On November 22, Rustavi 2’s lawyers were informed by the court that the case has been passed to the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court.
The Grand Chamber will consist of 9 judges for the Rustavi 2 case hearing. Several judges who presided over the case on lower judicial circuits will also be present, despite their not being members of the Grand Chamber. The Grand Chamber rules on cases that are particularly complicated in nature, and it is presided over by the Chairman of the Supreme Court.
Supporters of the television channel have gathered in front of the Supreme Court on November 21, encouraging the court to make an objective decision. On the same day Nika Gvaramia, executive director of Rustavi 2, issued a statement that the outcome of the trial is highly connected to the fate of Georgian democracy.
Though the case is of wide public interest it is not an open court hearing. Judges Besarion Alavidze, Ekaterine Gasitashvili and Paata Katamadze are presiding over the case. Rustavi 2 is appealing the decisions made by Tbilisi City Court and Appellate Court on granting 100% of the TV company’s shares to Kibar Khalvashi and his company Panorama. The Supreme Court announced on September 9 that it would hear the Rustavi 2 ownership dispute.
On September 5, Rustavi 2 claimed to have found a document which affirms that the channel was never owned by Kibar Khalvashi. The document, dated February 4, 2010, is an agreement between the beneficiary owner Irakli Okruashvili and nominal owner Kibar Khalvashi who served as an intermediary. Irakli Okruashvili has himself confirmed the authenticity of the document.
Rustavi 2 and several opposition parties (namely the United National Movement and the Free Democrats) see the ownership dispute as a political move as the channel has been known to be critical of the Georgian Dream government. The General Director of Rustavi 2, Nika Gvaramia, has said on numerous occasions that the Georgian Dream seeks to take over the company as they dislike the editorial policy of the channel. 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 the former owner Kibar Khalvashi and his company Panorama. Phaty Khalvashi, Kibar Khalvashi’s sister, is a member of Georgian Dream party and an MP for the Kobuleti District.
Kiber Khalvashi filed a lawsuit in August 2015 to reclaim his shares in Rustavi 2. Khalvashi was a co-owner of Rustavi 2 from 2004 to 2006. Rustavi 2 is the biggest TV network in Georgia and has the country’s largest audience. It is known for its criticism of the government. International and local organizations have called upon the Georgian government to refrain from taking over the independent channel. The Rustavi 2 case garnered more attention in the run up to the parliamentary elections.