Concerns remain about the way some cases of criminal prosecutions of former government members have been handled in Georgia, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
“We’re closely following the investigations, and have long been, of current and former officials. We continue to stress to the Georgian Government the importance of due process and rule of law and of conducting investigations with transparency to avoid even the perception that the judicial system is being used for political retribution,” Psaki said at a daily press briefing on October 23.
“We continue to support Georgia’s democratic development, which must include respect for political pluralism and open debate. As you know, because we’ve expressed it in the past there – we have expressed some concerns about the way some cases have been handled, and those concerns remain,” she added.
Her remarks were made in response to a question about sentencing of ex-chief of prison and former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia and former interior minister Vano Merabishvili.
Asked if the U.S. Department of State was expressing concern over these cases, Psaki responded that she does not want to get into specific cases.
“Obviously, as you know, each incident is different. But broadly speaking, as you know, there have been a range of convictions, and as we look over the course of time we’ve had concern which we’ve expressed,” she added.
Court found Akhalaia guilty of power abuse and torture in two separate cases and sentenced him to seven years and six months in jail. One of the cases over which Akhalaia was sentenced stems from what the court found was arranging “privileged” conditions in prison for four former interior ministry officers, who in 2006, when Akhalaia was prison system chief, were convicted for high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani. Prosecution claimed that Akhalaia made four convicts’ prison sentence a mere formality and it was part of a deal in exchange of convicts keeping silence over actual events surrounding Girgvliani murder and concealing culpability of other former interior ministry officials, including of Akhalaia’s brother, Data Akhalaia, who at the time served as head of the Department for Constitutional Security.
In a separate trial, ex-interior minister Vano Merabishvili was found guilty by the court on October 20 of power abuse charges also stemming from case related to the Girgvliani murder. Merabishvili, who denied charges, was found guilty of covering up evidence in an attempt to obstruct establishment of truth into the murder case of Girgvliani in 2006, when Merabishvili served as the interior minister.
The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the official investigation into the Girgvliani case in 2006 “manifestly lacked” independence; the court also said that it was “struck by how the different branches of state power… acted in concert in preventing justice from being done in this gruesome homicide case.”
Asked if the U.S. shares ECHR opinion that the former government in Georgia obstructed justice in this case, the U.S. Department of State spokesperson responded: “Well, I think when I reference the need to abide by the rule of law and allow the judicial system to work its way through an acceptable manner by international norms and standards, that’s a reference to the fact that we believe in some cases that hasn’t been followed.”
In March, 2014 the U.S. Department of State expressed concern over Georgian prosecutors’ decision to summon ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili for questioning in multiple criminal investigations.
When in late July Georgian prosecutors filed first criminal charges against ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili in connection to dispersal of the November 7, 2007 anti-government protests, as well as raid on and “seizure” of Imedi TV station, the U.S. Department of State again said it was “concerned” over this move.
More criminal charges were filed against Saakashvili in August. He was charged with misspending and also charged with ordering attack on then opposition lawmaker Valeri Gelashvili in 2005; ex-interior minister Vano Merabishvili has also been charged in connection to this latter case.
In July the Georgian prosecutor’s office invited three criminal law experts to set up International Prosecution Advisory Panel to assist Georgian prosecutors with advice in handling high-profile cases. The group includes British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice; former Israeli state prosecutor Moshe Lador, and Paul Coffey, former director of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) department of justice and formerly chief of the organized crime and racketeering section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
On October 23 the Georgian prosecutor’s office released panel’s preliminary conclusion on the Gelashvili case, which says that “existing material is legally and factually sufficient to proceed with the prosecution of Mikheil Saakashvili”, Vano Merabishvili and some other former officials facing charges in the same case.