The Tbilisi City Court today sentenced director of government-critical Mtavari Arkhi TV Nika Gvaramia to 3 years and 6 months in prison for abuse of power over his managerial decisions when he ran Rustavi 2 TV.
The ruling marks the first jailing of the opposition-minded TV chief in independent Georgia, which awaits the EU’s decision on its membership candidacy in the coming weeks.
In its decision, the Court re-qualified the charges under Article 182 (2a, 2d,3 b) — misappropriation or embezzlement with a preliminary agreement by a group, using official position and in large quantities to Article 220, abuse of power.
It found Gvaramia guilty in two episodes of the case, for striking a deal with Porsche Center Tbilisi to receive Porsche Macan S — worth EUR 76.7 thousand — in 2019 in exchange for placing ads on the channel with a discounted price, and for reducing Rustavi 2 ad placement prices in 2015. The two actions resulted in significant losses to the company, according to investigators.
The prosecutors said that in 2019, the Porsche automobile was pro-forma registered in the ownership of an ads agency affiliated with the then Rustavi 2 director, but was actually owned and used by Gvaramia and his family.
Meanwhile, in 2015, due to the reduced ad prices, Rustavi 2 TV received GEL 6.76 million (USD 2.2 million) less in advertisement revenues than the previous year, when it made about GEL 48 million, according to the prosecution.
For the 2019 deal, the Court handed down the prison sentence to Gvaramia, while over the 2015 events a fine of GEL 50 thousand (USD 16.5 thousand). The TV channel chief was subsequently freed from the fine as he will have to serve a more severe punishment in the same case, as Georgian legislation envisages concurrent sentencing.
The Court cleared Gvarmia of other charges brought against him Article 221 (3) — commercial bribery, Article 362 (2b) — forgery that resulted in substantial damages, and Article 194 (3c) — money laundering accompanied by a receipt of particularly large income.
Gvaramia denies all charges as politically motivated. Speaking with government-critical Formula TV on May 15, Gvaramia said that if the Court decided to imprison him it would “shorten [Georgia’s] path toward Russia even more.”
He had also demanded the judge in the case, Lasha Ckhikvadze, to be recused, claiming the justice was childhood friends with Zaza Gvelesiani, one of the witnesses in the investigation and an employee of a holding that currently owns a stake in Rustavi 2 TV.
Prosecutors brought the charges against the former director of Rustavi 2 in 2019, soon after businessman Kibar Khalvashi took over the channel and fired Gvaramia, who subsequently went on to establish Mtavari Arkhi TV.
Noteworthy, both of Gvaramia’s actions came amid an asset freeze imposed on Rustavi 2 TV by the Tbilisi City Court in August 2015, after Khalvashi launched a lawsuit to reclaim ownership of the TV station.
Case Politically Motivated, Defense, Watchdog Say
Mtavari Arkhi TV’s lawyer Dimitri Sadzaglishvili today told reporters that the defense will appeal the Tbilisi City Court’s decision in higher instances.
“In democratic, western-style states directors of critical media outlets are not arrested and persecuted for having different opinions,” Sadzaglishvili said. “We saw today the [Georgian Dream] Government make a clear decision in favor of Russia.”
Transparency International (TI) Georgia, one of the key local watchdogs, asserted after the ruling that the Court had “fulfilled a political order by punishing Nika Gvarama.”
The watchdog said its examination of the case files and court proceedings showed that the investigation against Gvaramia was “politically motivated,” solely aimed at punishing the outspoken TV chief and “hindering the work of the critical TV station.”
The Public Defender’s Office, which submitted an amicus curiae brief on that case in November 2019, had said that a decision made by a director of an enterprise, even a harmful one, cannot be subject to criminal liability.
“It may only be subject to corporate legal liability and even this may happen only in exceptional cases,” the Public Defender’s Office had argued, urging the Court to assess whether the disputed actions by Gvaramia were “truly a crime or whether it should be discussed in the context of corporate law.”
“The decision of a director, even if it brings less profit, may serve the best interests of the corporation and provide short or long-term risk insurance,” it added.
Gvaramia’s imprisonment comes amid mounting concerns over press freedom, judiciary independence and alleged political persecution in Georgia.
The country’s standing has dramatically declined in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) rankings, dropping from 60th place to 89th in 2021, a year that recorded “an unprecedented level of physical violence against journalists” per the press freedom watchdog.
Meanwhile, the EU has itself counted five setbacks “in the area of the judiciary and rule of law in Georgia” throughout 2021, including failure to meet court reform conditions for EU macro-financial assistance and the lack of “credible investigation and prosecution of the organizers of” the July 5 mass violence against over 50 journalists.
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