The Georgian Dream party’s proposal to dissolve the State Inspector’s Service, an independent agency to monitor personal data protection and probe abuse of power, has triggered criticism from the civil society, the opposition and State Inspector Londa Toloraia.
As per the initiative, publicized on December 24 in media, two new separate bodies tasked with probing abuse of power by law enforcement and monitoring data privacy. GD MPs are set to table the bill later today.
The unexpected bill comes as the State Inspector’s Service, along with the Public Defender’s Office, have remained critical over the GD government’s handling of jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. The Inspector is probing possible inhuman treatment of Saakashvili during his forced transfer to the Gldani prison clinic. It also found the Justice Ministry and the Special Penitentiary Service violating data protection laws by airing several controversial videos of Saakashvili.
GD chair Irakli Kobakhidze argued on December 25 that “replacing one agency with two” would not harm or diminish the authority of either of the State Inspector’s current functions. Instead, he maintained the new bill would increase the investigative capacities of the proposed separate agency to probe abuse of power.
The ruling party chair stressed that the two current functions of the Inspector’s Service are unrelated to each other, and it is a “conflict of interest” to have the two mandates under one agency. According to MP Kobakhidze, separating the two functions was also a recommendation of civil society.
State Inspector Slams Proposal
In a briefing today, State Inspector Londa Toloraia argued that the GD lawmakers are trying to “punish” the agency for being “independent, scrupulous, law-abiding” as well as for its decisions delivered against other state bodies.
“This is a very scary precedent not only for the State Inspector’s Service but for the entire country,” she highlighted, adding that the move would endanger any elected official and create a sense of instability. “This fact is a message to every civil servant, that they could one day be left jobless for doing their work scrupulously.”
She rebuffed GD chair Irakli Kobakhidze’s argument that the ruling party merely plans to separate the Inspector’s Service into two agencies. “With the bill, the service is not being reorganized, it is getting liquidated,” the State Inspector noted.
According to Toloraia, the bill does not envisage retaining the current staff of the Service in the two new agencies. “The Georgian Parliament decided to send us all home,” she stressed.
As for MP Kobakhidze’s claim that the powers of the proposed new investigative body would be wider, the State Inspector argued that the bill envisages allowing it to probe several criminal offenses “that in practice almost never occur” in the context of crimes by officials and civil servants.
Also, the State Inspector highlighted that while GD chair Kobakhidze argued the initiative was based on the civil society’s recommendation to keep the two functions separate, the ruling party dismissed the same suggestion in 2018, when establishing the Service.
Toloraia said it could not be coincidental that the ruling party unveiled the proposal during the holiday season, when the “vast majority of representatives of the international [organizations] and diplomatic corps are not in Georgia.” Meanwhile, she noted she was on maternity leave when the initiative was introduced.
“The Parliament, instead of helping strengthen the service, began a very dangerous process of expedited dissolution of the agency,” Toloraia highlighted.
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CSOs Condemn “Arbitrary” Law
Seventeen local civil society organizations on December 26 stressed that preparing such a draft legislation without consulting any stakeholders is an “extremely problematic and represents legislative arbitrariness.”
The watchdogs argued that the ruling party aims to establish its influence over an independent institution with the proposal, a suspicion they said is supported by the State Inspector’s Office being vocal against wrongdoings by law enforcement agencies and holding the Justice Ministry and the Special Penitentiary Service accountable for disseminating Saakashvili’s personal data.
The CSOs said the move “is nothing but political payback against an institution that as an exception managed to more or less gain public confidence over the past years,” the joint statement highlighted.
The watchdogs also referred to the third sector’s initial recommendation not to join the data privacy and investigative functions under one agency, arguing that observing the State Inspector’s Service makes it clear that having both powers at once presented “no flaws in practice.”
Meanwhile, the CSOs highlighted that both the third sector and the international partners of Georgia assess the independence and impartiality of the State Inspector’s Service positively.
Instead of dissolving the agency, the watchdogs asserted that Georgia should further strengthen the State Inspector’s Service, widen its authority and increase its independence from the prosecution when carrying out investigations.
Opposition Criticizes the Proposal
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili on December 25 linked the potential dismantling of the service to the Inspector’s investigation into the case of his alleged torture and inhuman treatment by the Penitentiary Service.
Saakashvili also named the Inspector having full footage of his transfer from Rustavi prison to Gldani prison hospital — showing “much more brutal treatment” against him — as another possible reason behind the move.
“The expected conclusion by the State Inspector would provide a solid basis for my immediate release by the Strasbourg court,” Saakashvili said.
MP Khatia Dekanoidze of the United National Movement echoed the sentiment, arguing that the Georgian Dream wants to get rid of Londa Toloraia due to the recent developments, including her “objective investigation” into Mikheil Saakashvili’s treatment.
Meanwhile, MP Mikheil Daushvili of ex-PM Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia party noted that GD “needs a completely party-controlled person in this position merely for the sake of maintaining power.”
MP Ana Natsvlishvili of Lelo concurred, arguing that “the Georgian Dream is wary and can not stand any institution or person who might voice positions that are to some degree independent and disobedient to it.”
The Georgian Dream-led Parliament adopted the Law on the State Inspector Service in July 2018, after lengthy CSO advocacy for the cause, leading to the agency to assume its data protection function on May 10, 2019 and its investigative mandate on November 1, 2019.
Currently, Londa Toloraia is serving a six-year term as the State Inspector after being confirmed by the Parliament on June 11, 2019.
Earlier, Toloraia served as the first head of the Human Rights Department in the Interior Ministry, where she was appointed by then Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia.
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NB: The article was updated for clarity on 21:25. Also, the paragraph on Toloraia’s earlier position was added.