Several weeks ago, the head of fourth unit of the criminal police department of the interior ministry, Davit Geladze, shot a gun at and wounded a young person, presumably because the senior official was angry at him.
Earlier than that, criminal proceedings were instigated against the first deputy interior minister, Gela Khvedelidze, for the release of a surreptitious video featuring the personal life of a journalist.
Investigations are underway on both cases. Both of the accused senior officials currently remain at liberty pending the results of these investigations. Furthermore, it transpired that the Prosecutor's Office even allowed the first deputy interior minister to travel abroad – a very rare occurrence during a prosecution.The court released Gela Khvedelidze on a bail of 5,000 GEL, whilst Davit Geladze was released on a 15,000 GEL bail. According to the court, the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to persuade the court to remand them in pretrial custody.
In stark contrast to these events, the former interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia, who had also previously served as the defense minister, has been held in pretrial custody for seven months now; Vano Merabishvili, the former prime minister and the General Secretary of the main opposition political party – the United National Movement (UNM), who was expected to run for the presidency, is also in pretrial detention.
Moreover, under the aegis of the "reinstatement of justice," over the eight months since the parliamentary elections and the peaceful transfer of power, criminal proceedings have been instituted against more than 100 persons connected with the UNM government in this or that capacity. In addition to those, among the accused persons are two former justice ministers, the former defense minister, the former deputy interior minister, the former finance minister who also served as energy minister, the former healthcare minister, the mayor of Tbilisi, the head of the joint staff of the armed forces and tens of other mid-level and senior officials.
The charges against the senior officials are diverse and, in most cases, grave. If proved guilty, some of them will face long prison sentences However, sentencing a person to imprisonment after they have been proven guilty by an independent and impartial court differs in essence from the application of pretrial detention during the investigation phase. According to Georgian legislation, as well as the legislation of many other countries and international law, pretrial detention can only be applied against a person who may go into hiding, destroy evidence or influence witnesses; it also applies towards a person who may continue committing crime.
During the investigation, a person is presumed innocent and, consequently, the procedural restrictions towards him/her must be applied in the light of this presumption.
In any case, the prosecution must provide concrete arguments supported by such evidence that will convince a court of the necessity of applying pretrial custody towards the accused person. In any other case, the use of pretrial detention is illegal and unjustified. Naturally, the issue of the application of pretrial detention has nothing to do with the guilt of a person.
The evidence provided by the prosecution in the cases of the senior officials of the current government, the first deputy minister Gela Khvedelidze and the head of fourth unit of the criminal police department of the interior ministry Davit Geladze, did not convince the court of the need to remand them in pretrial custody and it thus decided to apply bail.The arguments and decisions taken in the cases of the senior officials of the former government were different. Before being arrested, Merabishvili, the former prime minister and current UNM Secretary General, was summoned several times for questioning. He was aware of the ongoing investigation and the possible charges he might face. Despite this knowledge, he did not try to go into hiding, destroy evidence or influence witnesses. Nevertheless, the former prime minister has been put under custody whilst the prosecution continues with its investigation.
Against that backdrop, and considering that the presidential elections are due this autumn, a possible presidential candidate from the opposition party being remanded provides ground for concern.
Nor was there a threat of the former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia going into hiding, destroying evidence or influencing witnesses. Upon the transfer of power, he returned to Georgia from abroad on his own volition in order to answer the questions directed against him. Nevertheless, Bacho Akhalaia was detained on the grounds of the immediate threat of him going into hiding and was subsequently charged on almost every count separately.
Considering that the senior officials of the current government are at liberty as the investigations continue, whereas the minister and the prime minister of the former government are in confinement on the basis of unfounded arguments, the government will have to prove that no selective justice or politically motivated criminal procedures have been applied towards the former senior officials.
Political views and activities cannot provide immunity from criminal prosecution. Georgia is not the only country where politicians and former or incumbent senior officials have been brought to justice. However, the situation currently existing in Georgia differs from the practice in traditional democracies.
For example, the former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy has been under investigation for alleged corruption for one year now. This already long-lasting investigation may still continue for a long time yet. During this process, however, Sarkozy is at liberty and continues his political activity.
Since 2011, an investigation has been conducted against the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, for alleged violations during her tenure as the Finance Minister of France. Throughout all of this period, Lagarde, who has repeatedly appeared before the court for testimonies, has kept her position as the IMF's managing director and continues to work. Her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was detained on charges of sexual assault in New York in 2011, was released on bail pending the results of the investigation.
A former US politician and Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was convicted of extortion and sentenced to 14 years in prison last year. Despite the grave accusations that were leveled against him, some of which were subsequently proven in court, Blagojevich, who was detained by the FBI, was released on bail and upon the condition of him not leaving the country, until the trial started.
Just recently, Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum and up to 20 of his employees were arrested in a corruption scandal. Applebaum has been charged with 14 counts of corruption. After his arrest he spent 10 hours giving testimonies to the police, but he will stay at liberty pending the conclusion of the investigation. Like the former Governor of Illinois, he may also face many years of imprisonment, but only after the investigation and the trial have been completed and if the court finds him guilty.The detention and imprisonment of former senior officials and political opponents of the government have posed serious problems to Ukraine in its relations with the West.
At this time, the European Union refrains from signing an Association Agreement with Ukraine, despite the negotiations on which having long been completed and the final text agreed.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unambiguously pointed out to Ukraine the dishonest application of procedures of criminal prosecution and the political motivation behind the arrest and pretrial detention of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The ECHR has not yet even considered the guilt of these persons; but has already established the political motivation of their arrests during its consideration of the issue of the application of detention and pretrial custody. The Georgian government should thus treat cautiously the use of pretrial detention against politicians, regardless of their supposed guilt.
Our friendly states and the wider international community have long been pointing out to us that any legal procedure that is politically motivated, or is perceived as such, will endanger the country's Euro-Atlantic integration.
We have the example of Ukraine, where the criminal prosecutions and arrests of former senior officials brought nothing beneficial to the country.
It is noteworthy that Georgia has a chance to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Vilnius in November 2013.
The largest political force in Europe, the European People's Party (EPP), has already noted in its declaration on Georgia, adopted on 13 March 2013, that the arrests of former senior officials may adversely affect the completion of the Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit.
The EPP is only one of the groups sending us warning signals. Several weeks ago, whilst on a visit to Georgia, the NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, told Tabula that before discussing the possibility of Georgia moving into a new stage in its relationship with NATO, Georgia must address the concerns NATO has in relation to various issues, including the arrest of former senior officials.
No less noteworthy is the position expressed by Georgia's strategic partner the United States in a text of a congressional amendment to this partnership – the Statement of Congress on Defense Cooperation with Georgia: "The measures taken by the Georgian Government against former officials and political opponents, apparently in part motivated by political considerations, may have a significant negative impact on cooperation between the United States and Georgia, including efforts to build a stronger relationship in political, economic, and security matters, as well as progress on integrating Georgia into international organizations."
No matter on whom or what we place the blame for the skepticism of our friendly and partner states and the international community in general, ignoring such criticism is unacceptable.
The government must prove – by deeds, not only in words – that it deems the use of the mechanisms of criminal prosecution and selective justice against its political opponents as unacceptable.