ECHR Says Georgia’s ‘Anti-Thief-in-Law’ Legislation Not in Breach of Convention

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on July 15, that Georgia’s ‘anti-thief-in-law’ legislation, adopted in 2005 to efficiently crackdown on powerful organized crime groups and their bosses, did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

The unanimous ruling by a chamber of seven judges of the Strasbourg-based court stems from a complaint lodged by a Georgian citizen from Adjara region, who was convicted to seven years in prison in 2007 under the legislation in question for being a member of “thieves’ underworld”, receiving instructions from a criminal boss, “thief-in-law”.

In his complaint, lodged in 2008, the applicant argued that principle of “no punishment without law” of the Convention was violated against him as the legislation under which he was convicted had not been precise and foreseeable enough for him to understand what kind of conduct could be considered as membership of the criminal underworld, and thus for him to be punishable.

At the time when Georgia adopted the law in 2005, critics argued that the bill was vague and not precise enough. Earlier this year, when the issue re-emerged with some suggesting need to amend the legislation, PM Irakli Garibashvili ruled out such possibility and said in January: “We have a clear-cut position – this law will not be revised.”

ECHR said that the rationale behind Georgia’s decision to create such legislation almost nine years ago was to allow the law enforcement authorities “to more effectively combat these dangerous criminal syndicates which affected not only the criminal underworld, but also contaminated many aspects of ordinary public life.”

“Indeed, studies and submissions supplied by the Government on the impact of the ‘thieves’ underworld’ showed that this criminal phenomenon was deeply rooted in society, and that concepts such as ‘thieves underworld’ and ‘thief-in-law’ were common knowledge, and widely understood by the public,” ECHR said, adding that meaning of concepts criminalized by the legislation – “thieves’ underworld” and “thief-in-law” – was already well known to the general public.

ECHR also noted that the provision of the law in question was part of a wider legislation, containing a “detailed explanations” of terms such as “thieves’ underworld” and “thief-in-law”.

“Accordingly, the Court concluded that, even if [applicant] Mr Ashlarba had not understood such criminal concepts through common, public knowledge, he could have easily foreseen that his actions could result in his criminal responsibility through the wider legislation in place at that time and, if necessary, with the help of legal advice. As such, the Court concluded that there had been no violation of Article 7 of the Convention,” ECHR said.


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