On 1 August 2013, after a seven-month-long trial, the Tbilisi City Court delivered a verdict of acquittal on one of charges leveled against Bacho Akhalaia, the defense minister of the former government who also served as interior minister.
Bacho Akhalaia was charged, alongside the former Chief of Joint Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces Giorgi Kalandadze and several other senior military officers, with the inhumane treatment of soldiers. Throughout the investigation stage and the court hearing, Akhalaia was held in detention. Regardless of the 1 August acquittal, the former minister continues to be remanded in custody because his trial continues on two other counts – the inadequate treatment of several special forces officers on political grounds, the so-called rangers case, from the time when Akhalaia served as the Interior Minister, and the abuse of official powers and the inhumane treatment of inmates, the so-called prison riot case, which allegedly occurred during a prison riot in 2006 when he was the head of the penitentiary department.
Bacho Akhalaia was the first of the senior officials of the former government to be arrested and charged on several counts by the new authorities.
The charges leveled against Akhalaia belong to the category of grave and very grave crimes. However, shortcomings in the case against Akhalaia were revealed as early as the initial stages of the investigation. For example, within several days of Akhalaia's detention, two witnesses publicly declared that they had come under pressure from the prosecutor's office. According to the witnesses, the aim and result of that pressure was their coerced testimony against Bacho Akhalaia. After that fact was made public, the defense team of Akhalaia officially demanded an investigation, but it is not clear whether such an inquiry is even underway and, consequently, any results from it are as yet unknown. Instead, within a few days of having made their statements about being pressurized, the prosecutor's office leveled charges against the witnesses. This fact was the first sign that the investigation of Akhalaia's case was not on the path of an objective and comprehensive inquiry into the facts.
Throughout the court hearing of Akhalaia's case, one could repeatedly hear witnesses accusing law enforcement bodies for having coerced them into making testimonies. The media covering the trial of the former senior official could not leave unnoticed the multiple curious situations that occurred in the courtroom, for example, witnesses for the prosecution confessing that their testimonies were merely signed by them, and not written, with the result that they were unsure about the meaning of some words or phrases used in them; several victims failed to recognize the accused person, misidentifying him as a guard; witnesses arriving for the court hearing with notes written on their palms in order not to forget what to say; the judge having no other option but to erect a barrier of people between witnesses being questioned and the prosecutor in order to prevent the latter from signaling the former what to say. Apart from these curious instances, much graver facts transpired during the court hearing. For example, Colonel Merab Kiknadze, who was accused in the same case as Akhalaia, publically declaring that he had come under pressure from the prosecution, or General Kalandadze recalling an intimidating warning he had received from the Defense Minister Irakli Alasania that if Kalandadze wanted to be only a witness, not an accused, in the Akhalaia case, he should better testify against Bacho Akhalaia. Even more, one of the witnesses for the prosecution declared during the court hearing that he had been coerced into giving testimony against Akhalaia in the investigation stage by being abducted at midnight and intimidated. Despite the demands of the judge, the prosecutor refused to investigate this fact for, as he declared, it lacked the signs of a crime.
During the court hearing of Akhalaia's case it also transpired that some of the people who testified against Akhalaia and Kalandadze subsequently received employment or promotion in various state bodies.
Information about the developments in the courtroom, released via social media, left the impression that the Akhalaia case, which had been announced with great pomp by the prosecutor's office, was in fact becoming a problem for the prosecution itself.
At the end of the day, however, the judge, having considered, inter alia, the above mentioned circumstances, cleared Akhalaia and the other persons accused alongside him of the charge of the inhumane treatment of soldiers. (The court found two other military officers accused in this case, Aleksandre Gordadze and Zurab Shamatava, guilty of beating soldiers and sentenced them to community service, but they both were released because of the amnesty adopted by parliament after the change of power.)
The ruling of the Tbilisi City Court caused different reactions among both society and the ruling political team. Several members of the government made efforts to portray the acquittal as proof of the success of the court reforms implemented by the new government – that courts are independent of the prosecutor's office and no longer fulfill any of its demands. Another segment of politicians treated the decision of the court in a more realistic manner and pointed fingers at the prosecutor's office.
What does the case of Akhalaia mean for Georgian justice? Akhalaia's trial is a single distinct case, making generalizations and drawing conclusions from this will not provide a complete picture of the justice system. Even more exaggerated is the assumption made about the success of the court reforms in general because a single judge dared to acquit Bacho Akhalaia. The outcome of this case speaks more about the state of the prosecution than that of the courts.
Earlier this year, in an article titled "Court Independence in a New Danger Zone" (published in Tabula English Issue #27), I wrote that under the conditions of mass criminal prosecutions and investigations into the cases of former senior officials, courts have come to face a great challenge. This challenge has neither disappeared nor been overcome. We have heard intimidating rhetoric directed towards judges and statements in which judges were classified as either "victims of the system" or good judges.
On 6 June 2013, the Tbilisi City Court made a public statement about the interest shown by the prosecutor's office towards the Akhalaia case. The statement said that a prosecutor from the Chief Prosecutor's Office got in touch with an assistant of the judge hearing the Akhalaia case to inquire about the judge's opinion on the evidence in the case. According to the court's statement, the representative of the Chief Prosecutor's Office explained this inquiry by saying that he knew the case was "in difficulty" and the prosecutor in this case was "weak." The court publicly labeled this communication as "indirect interference with the court's activity." We are unaware of what measures the prosecutor's office has taken regarding this, but it is a fact that the prosecutor's office has been concerned about the fate of Akhalaia's case for a long time and that it was aware of those weaknesses outlined above.
The prosecution has declared that it will appeal the decision of the Tbilisi City Court. This is an absolutely natural reaction on its part, but in a situation where the prosecution has lost witnesses over the course of the trial and, given that it is unable to present new evidence to the court of appeals, it is unlikely to expect any change to the verdict of acquittal.
There is no doubt that Akhalaia's case exposed the myriad of challenges facing the prosecutor's office. In the assessment of several members of the ruling political team, the qualifications of the prosecutors is one important problem that the new leadership inherited from their predecessors; and they will not be able to tackle this problem in a short time span. Pointing fingers at the former leadership of the prosecutor's office is rather foolish, especially as the Chief Prosecutor is himself satisfied with the activity of his colleagues, having described the Akhalaia case as having been "perfectly prepared."
That assessment of the Chief Prosecutor is exaggerated. Under the conditions of the courts being independent of the influence of the prosecutor's office, as the government has declared, there are two explanations to the verdict of acquittal in Akhalaia's case. First, the charge leveled against the former minister was fabricated and no evidence exists in reality. Second, the prosecution failed to collect proper evidence and to prove the accusation. In both cases, we are dealing with a serious problem and not with a "perfectly prepared" case. Exerting pressure or intimidating witnesses is a crime and every accusation of such occurrences needs to be investigated.
Regardless of what the verdict of Akhalaia's trial might have been, such questions directed at the prosecution would still have emerged. The allegations leveled and exposed by the defense and witnesses each require investigation and legal evaluation.
The arrests of former senior officials and mass accusations have also given rise to questions from our partner states and their governments. After a peaceful and democratic change of power, the prosecution of former government officials has shattered the image of the country in the international arena. That's why, for quite some time, we have been hearing warnings from our friends that such a policy may jeopardize the Euro-Atlantic future of the country.
The prosecutor's office, and the government in general, should treat criminal accusations leveled against former senior officials with a higher degree of caution and make decisions according to the law and not to public opinion that they themselves have shaped, or the image of this or that person. Otherwise, any statement about the apolitical nature or impartiality of the prosecutor's office will remain just empty words.
The case of Akhalaia in general, and not merely the verdict of his acquittal, has exposed shortcomings with the prosecution. Rectifying these will make the justice system healthier.