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Institutional Persecution of Lawyers in Georgia

April 27, 2012

Aleko Tskitishvili,

Georgian Bar Association and human rights defenders protest institutional persecution of lawyers in Georgia. The parliamentary majority avoids speaking about it. Minority representative, deputy chair of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee Dimitry Lortkipanidze rebuked the Public Defender for not having reflected the facts of lawyers’ rights violation in his annual report.

President of the Georgian Bar Association Zaza Khatiashvili said 140 lawyers, 18 women among them, have been convicted in Georgia since 2003 under current governance.

“It is catastrophic index for the country, which is striving for the EU and NATO membership. So many lawyers were not arrested even in Belarus and Russia. Neither our neighboring Caucasian states – Armenia and Azerbaijan persecute lawyers so actively. 20-25 lawyers in average are arrested annually – mostly those who protest torture and inhuman treatment of their clients or win trials on the cases where the government has particular interest,” Zaza Khatiashvili said.

The Georgian Bar Association tries to provide famous international organizations, European Professional Unions of Lawyers, CoE and EU institution with the information about those problems. Zaza Khatiashvili believes that it is the most effective way for the lawyers to compel the government of Georgia to stop their persecution. “At the national level it is useless to petition to the President, to the Ministry of Justice, or the Prosecutor’s Office because it is entire system/regime which aims to subordinate lawyers. So, we try to inform the international community about our problems in order to request them to oppress our government and compel them to stop persecution of lawyers,” Zaza Khatiashvili said.

The tactic of the Georgian Bar Association has already had some result. Based on the petitions of the Association President, the International Observatory for Lawyers sent special mission in Georgia in 2010 to study the situation about local lawyers. The mission published its report in December of 2010. The report provides detailed information about unhealthy judicial conditions for lawyers in Georgia. The Mission studied and highlighted the following acute problems in the report: lawyers face problems when meeting detainees; confidentiality of lawyers’ interviews in prisons, notes and case documents is breached; detainees, who want to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, are intimidated; lawyers are searched in insulting and degrading manners in prisons, etc.

On December 21, 2010 President of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) José-María DAVÓ-FERNÁNDEZ sent letter to the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili where he, in the name of the CCBE, expressed deep concern regarding the lawyers’ problem in the country. “We understand that lawyers are often victims of insults and degrading physical treatment while trying to access their clients in prisons. It appears that female lawyers are a particular target of physical assault and humiliation while undergoing security checks. Furthermore, we were informed that prison officers create artificial barriers in order to prohibit lawyers from accessing their clients in prisons. Lawyers need to stand in queues for many hours or wait for several days before they manage to visit their detained or imprisoned clients. We were also informed that lawyers are not allowed to counsel and assist their clients confidentially. The CCBE is alarmed by this.”

CCBE represents the law societies in the EU. The CCBE urged the Georgian authorities to take immediate and effective steps to investigate the above mentioned facts, bring those responsible to justice and release all illegally arrested lawyers unless they are charged with recognizable criminal offences.” The CCBE also urged the Government to ensure that all actions and threats against lawyers for the legitimate exercise of their professional duties are immediately and effectively stopped.

Despite the conclusions of the authoritative organizations, the trend of persecution of Georgian lawyers continues. The Parliamentary majority does not properly value the issue of lawyers’ problem to discuss it. Neither the Public Defender has reflected lawyers’ problems in any of his reports. The Public Defender’s 2011 Report was published short time ago. Ombudsman Giorgi Tugushi discussed prisoner Nugzar T’s case in details. The convicted had petitioned to the Public Defender’s Office several times and requested them to protect him from inhuman treatment and violence in the custody. The Ombudsman petitioned to the Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of Corrections and Legal Aid of Georgia to investigate the situation described in the prisoner’s complaint letter and to ensure his security in the custody. However, the Public Defender failed to mention in his report that Nugzar T’s lawyer Irina Saginadze was also abused.

Zaza Khatiashvili said lawyer Irina Saginadze was physically assaulted only because she was taking her client’s complaint letter from the custody where the prisoner was complaining about torture and inhuman treatment in the setting: “Just imagine, she was implementing her professional duties and it became reason of her physical assault; they tried to arrest her under fabricated charge. The lawyer managed to call the TV-Company Maestro and me; the Maestro’s film-crew assisted her to leave the prison. We took her to hospital and recorded her injuries caused by physical assault. Short time later, Irina Saginadze repeatedly tried to take the complaint letter of the same prisoner out of the prison but this time prison personnel threatened her with rape and seized the complaint. We requested the Minister of Justice of Georgia to investigate those incidents. The chairman of the executive committee of the European Bar Association also petitioned to the Georgian Minister but those incidents have not been investigated yet.”

The parliamentary opposition requested the parliament to discuss the lawyers’ problem several times. For example, Levan Vepkhvadze from the parliamentary minority stated at the October 5, 2011 sitting of the Bureau of Georgian Parliament that before hearing the Public Defender’s Report at the Human Rights Committee, they should first read the Report of the Georgian Delegation of the International Observatory for Lawyers. He reminded his colleagues that this international institution monitors activities of lawyers. Vepkhvadze handed the Mission Report to the committee chairman Lasha Tordia and everything finished. The Parliament’s Human Right Committee has not discussed the report of the Observatory’s Mission at all.

Journalist of the Human Rights Center’s video-portal tried to get in touch with the parliamentary majority members to hear their clarifications why they neglect the problems of lawyers in Georgia. MP Andro Alavidze agreed to give interview but postponed the meeting several times. Finally, the journalist headed to the parliament to interview him without preliminary appointments. But she found only MP Zviad Kukava from the Legal Committee in his working room during working hours in the parliament; he said he was not competent about the issue and could not answer questions, though he is member of the legal committee.

Dimitry Lortkipanidze from the parliamentary minority and deputy chair of the Human Rights Committee is concerned by the fact that the parliamentary majority refrains from discussing the lawyers’ problems due to political motives. “Independent lawyers create problems for the government by their activities and they are persecuted. It is characteristic for authoritarian regime and it has reflected in alarming statistics of our country which state that 140 Georgian lawyers have been arrested on various grounds in the country recently. The lawyers often become victims of provocations of the prosecutor’s office. I can openly state that, today, lawyers are targets of institutional persecution that aims to subordinate all open-minded people who represent this independent profession in our country.”

Dimitry Lortkipanidze said he expected the Public Defender to reflect lawyers’ problems in his report, but “unfortunately, not only this but many other significant problems were not reflected in the report. So, I want to rebuke Mr. Giorgi at some point and remind him that he can also prepare special report on this issue.”

Nazi Janezashvili, executive director of the Georgia based nongovernmental organization Article 42 of the Constitution, member of the Tbilisi Human Rights House, stated that institutional persecution of lawyers in Georgia has become serious problem. “If we request fair court in Georgia, the lawyer shall play the key role in the country and particularly in judicial process. The state institutions shall respect the lawyers and of course so many lawyers must not be persecuted under the criminal law.”

According to the Report on the Georgian Mission of the International Observatory for Lawyers, lawyers in Georgia are mostly persecuted under the charges of swindle, influence on witnesses, missed trials and poor legal aid.

“If lawyer commits a crime, she/he must be punished but in our country lawyers are punished for having won trials and requested compensations for their service. Lawyer Tariel Murmanishvili was arrested for that particular charge. According to the accusation, his client had signed the agreement without having read it. Seemingly, the lawyer shall spend night with the client to give him time to read and learn the agreement conditions. Lawyer Mariana Ivelashvili was sentenced to 7-year-imprisonment because she poorly assisted the client. The Ethic Commission of the Bar Association is authorized to discuss similar cases instead prosecutor’s office,” Zaza Khatiashvili said.

The Tbilisi Human Rights House will dedicate a round table to the problem of institutional persecution of lawyers. The Round Table will take place in the office of the Georgian Bar Association with participation of human rights organizations and lawyers.