Georgian Dream, Opposition Spar over Releasing Prisoners after Electoral Deal

Despite sealing the March 8 deal that paves the way to new election system, the opposition and the ruling party still disagree over the spirit of the joint statement, signed by all sides. The opposition claimed that the statement implies a pledge to release from custody four prisoners (Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Giorgi Rurua, Besik Tamliani), alleged victims of political persecution. The ruling party refuted allegations that there had been any mention of “political prisoners” in March 8 negotiations, and dismissed claims by the opposition for their reading between the lines.

On March 8, representatives of the ruling party and the opposition finally reached a consensus over the electoral system reform ahead of crucial 2020 parliamentary polls. The parties signed a memorandum of understanding which contains several clauses delineating the proposed reform: introduction of a parliamentary composition based on 120 proportional mandates and 30 majoritarian seats (change from 77/73 system), a fair composition of 30 single-mandate constituency districts, a 1% threshold, and a cap recognizing that no single party that wins less than 40% of the votes should be able to get its own majority in the next parliament.

The parties also signed a joint statement that highlights the importance of “upholding and striving for the highest standards in the functioning of Georgia’s judicial system.” According to the statement, the parties “welcome the President’s offer to facilitate, within her constitutional powers, a free, fair and transparent electoral process.” These excerpts from the statement, the opposition claims, imply a promise by the ruling party to release four prisoners and to put a lid on further attempts of political repression.

On March 9, a group of opposition parties issued a statement calling on the President Zurabishvili and relevant state institutions to promptly release the said prisoners “by using legitimate tools at their disposal.”

Civil Georgia offers a compilation of public assessments.

Ruling Party’s Assessments

Archil Talakvadze, Chairperson of the Parliament: “As for high-profile cases currently under investigation… We, the political parties, agreed that the judiciary should not be exploited for partisan means and there should be no political interference. We [the ruling party] have always adhered to the tenet of the rule of law and that justice should be served notwithstanding the political process. There was no mention of other sort of consensus [with regard to freeing the said prisoners] in the document. Therefore, I refute claims by the opposition that agreement was achieved concerning any individual.”

Mamuka Mdinaradze, Deputy Chairperson of the Parliament: ”I really doubt that they [certain opposition politicians] have some liabilities towards [Gigi] Ugulava and try to court him by saying that “We mentioned your case in the agreement.” Please [refers to the opposition], do not lead the people astray – there was no agreement [regarding the prisoners]. Period.”

President’s Remarks

Salome Zurabishvili, President of Georgia: “With respect to pardoning [certain individuals], it has clearly prescribed procedures that were adopted last year. I shall examine all pleas of pardon that I receive, as stipulated by the rules, and as I have the pertinent discretionary power, I will grant a pardon based on my judgment. There is no single person in this country who is subject to specific [preferential pardoning] regulations [implies preferential treatment-editor’s note].”

Opposition’s Assessments

Nika Melia, former MP, the United National Movement party: “They [the ruling party] reckon that the agreement made them look weak in the eyes of the people… Statements they made about “not releasing the inmates” is similar to the following – when you burn your finger and then deny that it was burnt [refers to self-negation]. I do not understand what ends these talking heads [ruling party politicians] serve.”

Davit Bakradze, leader of the European Georgia party: “ [The ruling party] insisting the agreement was not reached with regard to freeing the political prisoners will result in scrapping the entire agreement. Same would happen were they to deny the agreement over the “electoral arithmetic” [refers to the envisaged change in the election system that will  120 mandates through proportional and 30 through majoritarian votingeditor’s note].”

Giorgi Vashadze, leader of the New Georgia party: “In accordance with our agreement, four people [Ugulava, Rurua, Okruashvili, Tamliani] who are currently in custody should be released from jail. If this clause of the document will not be fulfilled, it means that the agreement is not valid [between the ruling party and the opposition].”

Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor party: “Until political prisoners are released, the political resistance is far from abating. We may wait for a few days. [After that] unless political prisoners are set free, the author of these persecutions [refers to Georgian Dream’s chair Bidzina Ivanishvili] will be hit by such a whirlwind that no memorandum or middlemen could salvage him.”

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