On May 22, the Georgian Parliament rushed through controversial amendments to the Law on Public Health granting the Government temporary emergency-like powers through July 15 after the state of emergency is lifted on May 23.
The draft amendments, tabled by six Georgian Dream MPs, were passed with the third hearing with 80 votes for and 0 against. The opposition did not take part in the vote.
The bill authorizes the Government to enforce lockdown measures on public health security grounds, which may entail imposing restrictions on a wide spectrum of constitutional rights and freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and property, economic and labor rights.
The proposed piece of legislation was met with a barrage of criticism from the opposition and has concerned much of Georgia’s civil society.
Opposition lawmakers claimed the Government was effectively extending emergency powers “without any time limit,” and accused it of sidestepping the Parliament, as Government-imposed regulations will not fall under due parliamentary scrutiny.
United National Movement MP Roman Gotsiridze dubbed the law as “dictatorial,” while others railed against what they consider ruling party’s thinly veiled attempt to chip away essential human rights.
Georgia’s Public Defender weighed in with a long list of shortcomings, finding fault with the vague criteria allowing public authorities to “interfere with human rights.” In a similar vein, a number of civil society outlets slammed the draft law for being open to arbitrary application.
Dimitri Khundadze, chair of the Health and Social Issues Committee, spoke of looming threat of the resurgence of COVID-19 infection, arguing that authorities would need a set of “regulations” at their disposal to effectively handle the pandemic. Khundadze exhorted fellow MPs “to put aside political differences” and equip the Government with far-reaching powers.
Faced with scathing criticism, ruling party MP Irakli Kobakhidze sought to alleviate some of the concerns by proposing to turn to “a sunset clause,” rendering the emergency-like powers time bound – “sometime in July.”
He further suggested to revise the draft law in accordance with Ombudsman’s recommendations, which the ruling party did – adding criteria (known as “three levels of scrutiny”) to assess “proportionality” of Government’s actions, and narrowing the scope of at-risk groups who may be subject to lockdown measures. Additionally, court hearings will be allowed to be held remotely under exceptional circumstances only.
The opposition welcomed that Georgian Dream was giving ground on the issue, while maintaining that the revised legislation was still “irreconcilable with the Constitution.”
Commenting on a much-contested legislation at a government task force meeting on May 22, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said it was “entirely necessary” to allow his Cabinet implement virus-control measures. He pointed to new cases of infections that are still popping up sporadically in quarantined Southern Georgian villages.
PM Gakharia also chided Georgian Dream’s opponents for staging a “political masquerade” in the Parliament, and vowed to “carry on with enacting regulations” that are “indispensable” for the Government to take care of its citizens.
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