Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said on November 22 that three CSO’s who reported a whistle-blower allegation were “caught telling a lie” and implied that they have either purposefully voiced the United National Movement (UNM) propaganda, or were manipulated to do so.
“It is very regrettable that three civil society organizations were caught telling a lie. I probably know where this lie is coming from. After these organizations failed to provide evidence [to the prosecutor’s office], because they acknowledged having no evidence, an opinion emerged that they were simply instructed by the National Movement to tell this lie,” Tsulukiani said. She proceeded to say that CSOs could have been victims, used by UNM as “a trumpet” to publicize the fabricated story.
Whistle-blower case stirs controversy
On November 20, three watchdogs the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and Transparency International Georgia have voiced the allegations from an unnamed whistle-blower from the Public Service Development Agency (PSDA), that the Head of PSDA, Soso Giorgadze, and the Head of the Internal Audit of PSDA, Bezhan Obgaidze, have instructed the regional offices of the Agency to illegally issue up to five IDs to specific individuals, thus allowing them to vote multiple times in favor of Salome Zurabishvili, the ruling party-endorsed presidential candidate.
The Agency strongly denies the allegations and pledged to sue the CSOs for damaging their professional reputation.
The Prosecutor’s office has already launched investigation into the case. Having first interviewed the CSO representatives, the office issued a statement saying they “withheld crucial information”, namely, refused to name their informant. The Prosecution said the Criminal Procedure Code does not include the CSOs in a list of professionals that can keep professional confidentiality, that includes Ombudsperson, journalists, clergy, and attorneys.
The Head of the Public Service Development Agency, Soso Giorgadze, was also summoned by the Prosecutor’s office, has denied CSO allegations as “technically unimaginable” and “a slander”. He said the statement was linked to opposition’s pre-election, partisan agenda.
Eka Gigauri of Transparency International Georgia said that the Prosecution’s and Justice Minister’s statements are partial and aim at discrediting CSOs, rather than fulfilling their duty of investigation.
She said they have provided all information for the Prosecutor’s office about the details revealed by the whistle-blower and that the duty to investigate and to establish facts is with the Prosecution, not the CSOs that have neither the authority nor the resources to fulfill more than a preliminary verification of identities and facts.
Sulkhan Saladze, head of GYLA, said that Georgian legislation does not oblige watchdogs to disclose their sources, and such interpretation was never applied by the officials. He also decried the fact that the Justice Minister has identified the allegations as a “lie” solely one day after formal investigation was launched. “Following the Justice Minister’s remarks, it is difficult to have any expectation that there is a political will to investigate thის case,” Saladze says. “Particular groups, including those affiliated with the ruling party, and what is most regretful, top officials are doing their best to discredit the civil society,” he added.
CSOs argue, that their right to withhold the identity of the whistle-blower is protected by the law “On Freedom of Speech and Expression”, which guarantees the privileged right to confidentiality of professional sources of information.
Georgian Dream’s Terse Standoff with Watchdogs
The latest episode fits the trend of increasingly terse exchanges, in which the Government and the ruling party officials have been targeting Georgia’s established watchdogs during the Presidential election campaign of 2018. Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani have been at the forefront of this confrontation.
Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze said on October 4, “[what we have] in Georgia, is a political union of citizens, called ‘non-governmental sector.’ It is a distinct political union, which, if it were to run in elections, would not even gain 1% of the votes.”
Minister Tsulukiani said on October 3, that these CSOs “not only carry out partisan interests, but are indeed political parties” and thus discredit themselves “with their superficial assessments, risible statements, which fail to meet either legal or ethical standards. Therefore, their words are worth nothing.” She added with mock compassion, that “this is indeed a great tragedy of this segment of our civil society, their real problem.”
Public Defender Nino Lomjaria has strongly criticized the authorities on October 25 for their criticism of the civil society organizations, and has urged them to observe the international standards in protecting the rights and the safety of civil society groups and activists.
The ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG) officials launched a coordinated attack against the civil society groups earlier in October, shortly after the joint statement of thirteen leading CSOs that the Omega Group-related developments indicated at “a severe crisis in the governance system, clear signs of high level corruption and informal, clan rule.”
The GDDG politicians continued criticizing the CSOs throughout the month, with Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze saying on October 10 that absence of “clear” CSO position on Rustavi 2 TV director’s “fascist” remarks on Zurabishvili was indicative of their complicity to “fascism.”
On October 22, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said the executive director of the Transparency International-Georgia, Eka Gigauri, “could have allegedly contributed” to the dispersal of a demonstration on November 7, 2007 in her capacity as a “former high official of the police.”
GDDG Leader Bidzina Ivanishvili commented on the matter on October 23, saying CSO leaders “are activists of the United National Movement, who have managed to permeate the civil society and have been attacking the authorities [including Salome Zurabishvili], and when they are responded to, they immediately present it as an attack against CSOs.”