“I’m leaving my political party and opt for political silence,” declared the new chairman of the Georgian Supreme Court, Kote Kemularia, after his strong parliamentary confirmation on June 24 (Dilis Gazeti, June 25). Before becoming the third chairman of the Georgian Supreme Court in the last ten years, Kemularia had been a distinguished activist in the ruling National Democratic Party and minister of justice from 1992 to 1993. After the Rose Revolution of November 2003, he served as Georgia’s ambassador to Russia. His career has not been free of controversy, however. Some Georgian sources claim that the new foreign minister recalled Kemularia to Tbilisi due to poor performance in Moscow. Just a year and a half earlier, the Prosecutor’s Office claimed to have evidence exposing Kemularia’s involvement in financial abuses while he worked as a lawyer for the Georgian League of Disabled People.
When Kemularia’s predecessor, Lado Chanturia, resigned on June 11, halfway through this ten-year term, he declared that he had become “tired from keeping silent too long” (Rustavi-2, June 11, “24 Hours,” Dilis Gazeti, June 12). Chanturia, who at one time was considered a potential successor to former President Eduard Shevardnadze, has found himself involved in several politicized court cases in post-Shevardnadze Georgia. In the first days of the Rose Revolution, the Chanturia-led Supreme Court made a questionable judicial ruling when it invalidated the engineered results of the November 2, 2003, parliamentary elections, a subject clearly under the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court. However, this gesture did not improve Chanturia’s standing with the leaders of the Rose Revolution. His early resignation was a logical part of the process of purging Shevardnadze-era personnel from law-enforcement bodies.
Judicial reforms and the rule of law are highly relevant issues in post-Shevardnadze Georgia, because Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is regularly identified as a “Western-trained lawyer” and the “father of Georgian judicial reform.” In 1999 Saakashvili instituted qualification tests for Georgian judges, which removed many unprofessional lawyers from the judicial system. However, the recent reprisals against several former officials, ostensibly carried out under the “full cooperation” of the courts and prosecutors, have raised a number of thorny questions about the new “government of hope.”
The recent reshuffle in Georgian law-enforcement and judicial bodies (see EDM June 10) was Saakashvili’s response to allegations of abuse by these institutions. The appointments of Kemularia as chairman of the Supreme Court and Pavle Kublashvili, another Saakashvili loyalist, as secretary of the Justice Council with the authority to evaluate judges, have installed Saakashvili’s closest confidants at the top of all law-enforcement agencies (“24 Hours,” June 29). This administrative set-up evidently strengthens Saakashvili’s stance in current and future power struggles, but gives him full responsibility for obeying the rule of law in Georgia.
Georgia’s civic sector and opposition groups doubt that the partisan background of the new law-enforcement leaders will allow them to stay unbiased and independent during sensitive cases. For example, human rights NGOs have protested a recent decree by Justice Minister Giorgi Papuashvili that prohibits NGOs from monitoring the penal system (Inter Press, June 25).
David Gamkrelidze, leader of the sole opposition faction “New Rightists-Industrialists” in parliament, says that although Kemularia is a professional lawyer he will always be Saakashvili’s man, which would deprive the court of its ability to strengthen law and justice (Mtavari Gazeti, June 19). To backup his claim, Gamkrelidze points out that the Prosecutor’s Office recently removed sensitive investigative files from the Control Chamber — parliament’s watchdog agency. The files detailed abuses in the ministries that Saakashvili and other top leaders of the ruling party headed several years ago. The former chairman of the Control Chamber, Sulkhan Molashvili, who accumulated those files, has been imprisoned on suspect charges (Resonance, June 29).
Even the ruling party has been forced to concede that the widely touted court reform has not brought the desired results. During the June 10 swearing-in ceremony for the regional court in Kutaisi (Georgia’s second largest city), Saakashvili openly spoke about the increased incidence of bribe-taking in Georgian courts over the past year (Rustavi- 2 TV, June 10, Mtavari Gazeti, June 11).
Meanwhile, the judicial reforms have produced some visible results, and the system is coming to resemble its American model. The new chairman of the Supreme Court has already stated that a law introducing trial by jury will be adopted soon. The Liberty Institute, a pro-Saakashvili NGO, has already drafted a bill about merging the Constitutional and Supreme Courts. The Georgian Criminal Procedural Code now allows the use of secret audio recordings and videotapes as evidence in court. The Ministry of Justice has established an inspectorate to respond promptly to any citizen complaints of violations by ministry employees. According to a recent nationwide poll conducted by the Georgian Opinion Research Business International, 51% of respondents trust the courts. However, those respondents had no prior contact with the Georgian court system.