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Parliament Passes Interior Ministry Reform Bill

File photo of Interior Ministry’s headquarters in Tbilisi

Parliament passed on July 3 with its second reading voluminous package of legislative amendments envisaging decoupling of security and intelligence agencies from the Interior Ministry.

The package, which the officials say aims at “de-concentration of excessive power” currently held within the Interior Ministry, has to be passed with its third reading; but no significant changes can be made to the draft at that final stage of hearing.

The draft, which has gone through numerous amendments as a result of lengthy and thorough discussions at parliament’s committee for legal affairs, envisages setting up of a separate agency, State Security Service, from August 1.

Counter-terrorism center; counter-intelligence; anti-corruption agency; operative-technical department, which is eavesdropping agency in charge of surveillance operations, and special operations department will be separated from the Interior Ministry and move to the planned State Security Service.

A candidate for head of the State Security Service will be selected by Prime Minister and after approval by the government members, nomination will be submitted to the Parliament for confirmation, according to the package of bills, which includes amendments to 55 laws.

A candidate will need support of at least 76 lawmakers in the 150-seat Parliament to be confirmed as head of the State Security Service for a six-year term.

In case of a failure to gain support of the Parliament, the same candidate can be re-nominated, but if rejected by lawmakers again, another candidate should be selected.

Head of the State Security Service can serve only one six-year term in office.

Among the amendments made to the bill ahead of its approval with the second reading were introduction of measures to increase accountability of agency’s head before the Parliament.

In addition to annual reports, which the agency’s head will have to present to the Parliament, he or she will be “obligated” to appear before MPs upon summoning and to present an ad-hoc report within two weeks after requested by lawmakers.

The Parliament will have power to sack the head of the service. In this respect holder of this office becomes more accountable before the legislative body then any individual cabinet minister as the Parliament has no power to sack a minister. At least one-third of sitting lawmakers will be needed to initiate procedures for dismissing head of the State Security Service; at least 76 votes will be required to finalize the process and sack the head of the agency.

A candidate for the head of the State Security Service should not be a member of any political party, according to the bill. During the debates, some UNM opposition lawmakers offered to impose much more stringent rules in this regard – specifying that a candidate should not be affiliated to any political party or engaged in political activities for several years prior to nomination; proposal was declined.

One of the main concerns voiced by several civil society and human rights groups about the package of bills was related to potential duplication of functions between the Interior Ministry and the planned State Security Service. The rights groups argue that the scope of the planned security agency’s authority should only be analytical and intelligence gathering functions, because giving security agencies investigative functions and the right to carry out other law enforcement tasks would pose a risk of abuse of power and duplication of traditional police activities.

Counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, security and anti-corruption units of the planned new agency will be empowered with investigative functions and will also have the right to carry out detentions. Although the package of bills were amended to minimize possible duplication of traditional police functions, representatives of the civil society organizations say that concerns in this regard still remain.

Another issue, which caused much concerns of civil society representatives and some GD lawmakers as well, especially of those from the Republican Party, was related to so called ODRs – an informal name of security officers, which stems from the Russian abbreviation ОДР (active reserve officer).

ODRs are security officers, who are currently assigned by the Interior Ministry in various institutions – a practice which is a holdover from the Soviet times when KGB agents were attached to various entities and which was also practiced under every post-Soviet government in Georgia. The practice has long been source of civil society organization’s criticism, especially in cases when such security officers are attached to entities like the public broadcaster and communications regulatory commission.

At the initial stage of discussions of the bill, the Interior Ministry was strongly against of scrapping this practice, but eventually had to yield to demands coming not only from the civil society groups and opposition, but also from some GD lawmakers as well, and agreed to overhaul existing system.

According to the newly added provisions of the bill, the State Security Service will have the right to define, what it calls, “security regime” – set of norms, rules and procedures to ensure protection of security and data at “high-risk” state and private entities, list of which will be defined through government decree. To monitor how “security regime” is enforced in those entities, the State Security Service will have to enter into contract with an entity to set forms of the supervision of the “security regime”, which may also include attaching a security officer in the entity if requested by the latter.

One of the key differences with the existing system, Deputy Interior Minister Levan Izoria, told lawmakers on July 3, is that the new model is much more transparent as the list of entities has to be defined through government decree.

GD MP Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said that he “cannot imagine any responsible government, which would include in the list entities like the public broadcaster.”

Despite this new rule, some civil society organizations, as well as parliamentary opposition parties, still remain critical of the provision arguing that it would fail to address the problem.

GD MP Tamar Kordzaia of the Republican Party, who was very critical of the initial bill in respect of ODRs, said: “It is really unfair to say that nothing has been changed when comes to ODR.”

Opposition lawmakers from the UNM party refused to support the bill, claiming that was failing to provide enough mechanisms for the State Security Service accountability. Some UNM MPs also complained that the opposition would have no say in selecting a candidate for the head of the agency. The interior and security ministries merged in 2004, shortly after the UNM came into power.

Lawmakers from the opposition Free Democrats party also refused to support. “Decoupling of the security agencies from the Interior Ministry is necessary… But we do not think that it is done with an intention to secure country’s development in the right direction,” FD MP Zurab Abashidze said.

GD MP Vakhtang Khmaladze said that while it was legitimate to argue that the initial package of bills was only offering “mechanical” decoupling, after multiple revisions in the process of discussions, “now we can say that qualitatively new State Security Service is being established, which is no longer just a mechanical separation” of security agencies from the Interior Ministry.

The planned State Security Service, with about 4,000 employees, will require funding of GEL 36.7 million in a period between August and year’s end. This amount of funding will be allocated from the Interior Ministry’s 2015 GEL 638.7 million budget.

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