Tbilisi has responded to international and domestic complaints that Georgia’s judiciary frequently makes unfair, politically motivated decisions.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, known as the “Godfather” of Georgia’s 1997-98 judicial reforms, now admits that the reform drive has not been a complete success. During a meeting with lawmakers from the ruling National Movement on April 17 Saakashvili, who previously chaired parliament’s legal affairs committee, confessed that the judiciary “remains the most problematic sector.” He conceded that the independence and quality of the court system need to be improved and that this will take a long time. Saakashvili suggested reorganizing the Justice Council, a consultative watchdog body under the president, by removing the prosecutor-general from the Council. After the November 2003 Rose Revolution the Justice Council disciplined numerous judges, sparking criticism that the Council was targeting judges who resisted implementing orders reportedly sent by the country’s political leaders. The “disgraced” judges argue that courts in Georgia are obediently advocating the interests of the Prosecutors’ Office and the ruling party (see EDM, December 8, 2005).
Georgia’s court system has never been fully independent since the restoration of Georgian statehood in 1992. Moreover, it has always been a convenient tool for governing forces to suppress political opponents, and it appears that the Saakashvili-led National Movement succumbed to the temptation to make the courts docile. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s government seems to be fully aware that a passive judiciary could damage Georgia’s prospects for economic revival, foreign investment, and integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures.
International organizations and Georgia’s Western allies are increasingly demanding that Saakashvili’s government bring the judiciary in line with democratic standards in general and ensure judicial independence in particular. In May 2005 the European Union’s Rule of Law mission presented the Georgian government with a comprehensive strategy for judicial reform (Civil Georgia, May 20, 2005). But judging by Saakashvili’s remarks, it seems that little has been done to improve the situation.
The imperfect judiciary appears to be impeding Georgia’s integration into NATO. Even pro-government parliamentarian Nika Rurua, deputy chair of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, admitted that breaches in the Georgian judicial system were among the complaints raised when a Georgian delegation visited NATO headquarters on April 13 (24 Saati, April 18; Prime News, April 20; Interfax, April 22).
In a new documentary, “Time of Justice,” based on an investigation by the Studio Reporter journalists’ association, lawyers of defendants complained that understaffed courts had led to a backlog of cases, making defendants spend additional months in jail awaiting trial. The investigation also revealed numerous cases of the Prosecutor’s Office wielding excessive influence on the weakened Supreme Court and political pressure on judges, including extensive dismissals of disobedient judges (TV-Imedi, TV-Rustavi-2, May 20).
Saakashvili’s team has led a widespread drive to replace veteran judges with a younger generation that is fully loyal to the government. Recent amendments to legislation adopted by the National Movement-dominated parliament lowered the minimum age requirement for a seat on the Supreme Court to 28 years. Similar drives are occurring in other state bodies to bring in new cadres that mirror the ruling regime’s mentality and values.
On April 18, a large group of dismissed judges issued an open letter that dismissed the government-initiated legal reforms of the last two years as “hasty, discriminatory, and forced.” The letter argues that the court reorganization scheme launched in 2005 was an excuse to sack undesirable judges. These judges, the letter argued, were granted a vague “reserve” status and deprived of social guarantees. The letter also draws attention to the acute deficiency of cadres in the courts and the lack of professionalism among the newly appointed judges, which has led to numerous cases that violate the Georgian Constitution and international standards. “The unprofessional and ill-considered reforms cast doubts on the legitimacy of many court decisions” according to the letter (Resonansi, April 20). Many judges have voluntarily retired from the bench when tempted by the attractive package of social benefits offered by the ruling party.
Supreme Court Chair Kote Kublashvili, a close confidant of Saakashvili, has frequently been suspected of pressing judges to please the Prosecutors’ Office (see EDM, December 8, 2005). In an interview with 24 Saati, he admitted that the Saakashvili-led court reforms of 1998 failed. Kublashvili did not deny that serious flaws exist in the Georgian judiciary, and he apparently agrees with the government’s policy to free the court of backward-looking judges. Kublashvili also revealed that there are 100 vacancies on the bench due to the lack of qualified cadres to fill the positions. When asked when the Georgian court would achieve full independence, he responded, “This needs years” (24 Saati, April 18).
In order to quiet the complaints of the local establishment and international donors Saakashvili’s government has announced that it will establish a special commission to foster judicial reforms. The commission will consist of representatives from civil society, political parties, and international experts (Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, April 17). But if this efforts leads to a mere “cosmetic renovation” of the judiciary, as appears likely, the halfhearted effort could deepen the public’s mistrust of the judiciary and the government.