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Facing Criticism, President Suspends Pardons

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Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili responded to a media row concerning her pardoning of the inmates, including those sentenced for murder with a self-imposed “moratorium” on pardons.

At a news briefing on September 18, Zurabishvili said since her recent decisions have caused outcry, she would stop pardoning altogether, until clearer procedures are established.

“Pardoning is not what some of you might think. This does not mean someone’s guilt is nullified. This does not represent revision of any court [decision]… This is a subjective, personal decision of the President under exercising her own [constitutional] duties,” Zurabishvili said, adding that the pardons are based on subjective “assessment of circumstances”, which  “does not preclude mistakes” or the possibility of there being differing assessments of the same circumstances by others.

Zurabishvili reiterated her earlier position, that the rules for pardoning should be re-assessed by a parliamentary group, and noted that consultations with Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze have already been held. According to President Zurabishvili, her administration has been working on new rules since January 2019, and expressing hope that starting next week a new working group comprised of “all the parties” will undertake to elaborate “perfect rules” to “avoid such public concerns” in the future.

“Until then, considering the existing circumstances, I, as the President – and this is my full right – will impose a moratorium on pardoning,” Zurabishvili said, assuming the “entire responsibility”  for the decision.

She also flatly denied “speculations” that someone else from her administration was influencing the pardons. Zurabishvili was responding to media speculations that her parliamentary secretary Dimitri Gabunia, previously a practicing defense attorney, was acting as a go-between for the inmate’s families and attorneys. “I did not receive any advice from him, neither was he asked of his opinion about any decision,” Zurabishvili noted.  

Background

On September 16, newly established TV channel “Mtavari Arkhi” aired a story, according to which on August 28, President Zurabishvili pardoned Aslan Bezhanidze charged for premeditated murder of 18-year-old Davit Otkhmezuri.

The murder took place in 2004. Bezhanidze, however, was arrested 12 years later, in March 2016. On March 29, 2018, the Supreme Court sentenced Bezhanidze to nine years in custody, but the 2012 amnesty reduced his sentence to six years and nine months. With Presidential pardon, Bezhanidze would have spent only 1.5 years behind bars.

Earlier this month, Zurabishvili was also criticized for pardoning a person sentenced for murdering a police officer. In response to the first wave of criticism, President Zurabishvili then noted that “given a legal nature of pardoning, no public discussion can be held on specific details, circumstances and motives.” She also proposed to further improve the practice of exercising the President’s right to pardon.

Ruling party assessment 

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said although pardoning is clearly President’s constitutonal powers, it is “absolutely unacceptable” to pardon a murderer – of a police officer, or otherwise. PM Gakharia welcomed the “moratorium” as well as the envisaged consultations in the legislature. “There should be a joint discussion with parliament and, of course, certain filters should be created to [ensure] no persons charged for serious crimes – in particular murder – are not pardoned in that form,” PM Gakharia stated.

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani also commented on the issue. In her televised interview to the Georgian Public Broadcaster yesterday Tea Tsulukiani said there was no communication between the President’s administration and the Justice Ministry over the recent pardons. Tsulukiani noted that one of those pardoned by the President, is still wanted by the police. Stressing the importance of reforming the pardoning practice as such, Minister Tsulukiani said this right cannot be “unlimited,” and “immense,” otherwise it can lead to similar “unfortunate consequences.”

Gia Volski, the leader of the parliamentary majority leader slammed the President’s decision on pardoning Otkhmezuri’s murderer as “incorrect.” He, however, explained that until the issue of pardoning is regulated and the clear criteria are established, “nobody is insured against mistakes, errors and incorrect decisions.” Volski therefore welcomed the President’s decision to impose moratorium, saying without a well-defined set of criteria, it is impossible forone single person would make a decision “without a mistake.”

Opposition assessment

Opposition United National Movement MP Roman Gotsiridze considers Zurabishvili’s announcement on imposing moratorium “un-serious.” “Speaking about “moratorium” means that she is trying to evade her constitutional obligations. A “moratorium” means that she does not fulfill her duties set by the constitution, because an act of pardoning is a right and an obligation at the same time,” Gotsiridze said, adding that no legislation needs to be changed in this regard, putting the blame on Zurabishvili for “demolishing” the Commission for Pardons and its mechanisms, that existed previously. 

European Georgia’s Gigi Ugulava also noted that the president’s power “to pardon a certain person, should not be limited, but at the same time, this lady should be driven out of the [presidential] palace through impeachment.” According to Ugulava, there is enough ground for the parliament to start discussion of Zurabishvili’s impeachment. “Her every day spent in the [Presidential] palace is dangerous,” Ugulava stated.

Mamuka Khazaradze, founder of new public movement “Lelo” also commented on the matter. “From institutional point of view, the President should exercise the right of pardoning, because it is a normal, human act. However, if this procedure is not transparent, if it is unclear and alarming for the public, especially if it concerns a police officer, who defends us and if so many questions arise, I fully distance myself from this process, I protest it and demand in-depth explanations,” Khazaradze said, adding that “the institution of pardoning should not be eroded and it should continue to exist; however, in its current form it is absolutely unacceptable.”

Public Defender’s assessment

Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria also expressed her criticism and called on the President to ensure “maximum transparency and public involvement in the exercise of the power to pardon.” According to Lomjaria, “the discretionary nature of the pardoning powers does not imply its use without providing any justification,” and it “should be aimed at achieving a specific task – be it in light of state, political, judicial, or special individual circumstances.”

Noting that “in each case, the rationale behind the use of such an exceptional power must be as clear and understandable as possible for the public,” Public Defender hoped that the President of Georgia “will ensure that the Pardon Commission is staffed with persons enjoying high public legitimacy in the shortest time, conduct the pardon procedure as transparently as possible and have in mind the public consensus when making decisions.”

President Zurabishvili suspended the Pardon Commission in January 2019, but has not set up the new composition so far. As her administration then explained, they have been working on the “new concept” of the Pardon Commission.

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