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Civil Society Weighs in on Public Defender Selection Process

What’s happening?

The Parliament has publicized the list of candidates who applied to become the country’s next Public Defender, the head of the country’s main human rights watchdog.

Why is it important?

The term in office of the current Public Defender, Nino Lomjaria, expires on December 9. To be appointed, a candidate will need the votes of 90 MPs, which means the ruling party, the Georgian Dream, and the opposition must cooperate. For months now, Lomjaria has been under fire from the ruling party, which accuses her of siding with the opposition and pursuing a partisan agenda. Partly due to these attacks, the selection of an impartial Public Defender, based on a consensus of the political parties has been one of the conditions named by the Council of the European Union for advancing Georgia’s membership candidacy.

The ruling party pledged to fulfill the recommendation and suggested the new application and review process, which, despite some criticisms, has been put into operation.

What happened until now?

  • On 31 August, the Georgian Dream party announced that, in accordance with the European Commission’s 12 recommendations, legislative changes were registered in Parliament which updated the general criteria for evaluating and selecting a Public Defender candidate. At the time Mamuka Mdinaradze, the chairperson of the Georgian Dream parliamentary faction and the party’s executive secretary, stated that the party would not nominate a candidate for the Public Defender.
  • On 7 September, the Public Defender’s Office criticized the amendments proposed by Georgian Dream and stated that “unfortunately, the text of the draft law and the time of the committee hearing were not known to stakeholders in due time” which undermined the inclusivity of the process. The Public Defender’s Office also said at the time that without the aforementioned conditions, it is impossible to discuss creating opportunities for civil society involvement and an inclusive process.
  • On 9 September, the Parliament adopted the controversial bill in a rush procedure. In line with the changes, the Speaker of Parliament was put in charge of creating a nine-member commission, which will evaluate the candidates for the position of Public Defender before presenting them for the final selection to Parliament. Per the changes, Parliament will only start considering candidates when there are at least 7 of them.
  • On 27 September, the Parliament published the composition of the nine-member working group which will evaluate Public Defender candidates.
  • On 30 September, the Parliament also published the list of persons who submitted their candidacy to be the new Public Defender. A total of 19 people make up the list, among them, the three candidates which were nominated by a group of civil society organizations.

Key civil society watchdogs react:

Civil society human rights watchdogs have traditionally played a part in the appointment of Public Defenders. Nino Lomjaria, incumbent Public Defender, herself worked in the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), which runs some of the most prominent legal clinics, before becoming the executive director of the key election watchdog, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED).

Nika Simonishvili, the chairperson of GYLA, told Civil.ge that he has no complaints about the composition of the working group that is to evaluate the Public Defender candidates. He is concerned, however, that the Speaker of Parliament had the sole authority to appoint its members, without due consultation. “Even though the resulting composition is not bad overall, this rule did not inspire confidence among many organizations,” he explained.

According to Simonishvili, it is also noteworthy that “this evaluation group does not act as a formal filter” in the process of selection – their opinion is purely advisory, “and political groups [in the Parliament] are free to take it into account or not.”

“In other words, if this group gives a low evaluation score to a candidate, it is still possible that they will be chosen as the Public Defender anyway,” Simonishvili says.

Nino Dolidze, the Director of ISFED, expects the evaluation group to be objective in their decision-making and to support the candidates presented by civil society organizations, at least in the first stage. However, like Simonishvili, Dolidze emphasizes that “this commission does not have a substantive function” in the selection, since the Parliament will anyway look at the long list of candidates and take the final decision without having to consider the commission’s opinion.

“The main [review] process will take place in the Parliament of Georgia. The ruling party will have to demonstrate that they really want an independent, impartial candidate. We will evaluate the process after that,” she said, stressing that the Parliament’s decision requires consensus between political parties.

Giorgi Chitidze, speaking on behalf of the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF), highlighted the vagueness of the criteria by which the working group will evaluate candidates and noted that “it would be good if we heard the candidates publicly.” According to Chitidze, it is also unclear how the Parliament Speaker selected the candidates for the evaluation group.

Speaking about the post-evaluation procedure, Chitidze noted that the requirement that at least 7 candidates be presented to Parliament “was set on purpose so that the opposition did not settle on one or two worthy candidates.” “Ultimately, this parliamentary process, which supposedly provides for the implementation of one of the 12 recommendations, is flawed,” he underscores.

Baia Pataraia, head of the Sapari, a major women’s rights network, is worried that the Georgian Dream party did not consult civil society organizations as part of the process which, according to her, is an indication that “they do not want to cooperate.” “When [the current Public Defender] Nino Lomjaria was elected, [representatives of the ruling team] met with the civil sector and there was a genuine political will to consult… this year, unfortunately, we do not see such cooperation,” she said in an interview with Mtavari Arkhi TV on 29 September.

Pataraia also recalled the statement of the Georgian Dream chairperson, Irakli Kobakhidze, where he remarked that the party intends “not to repeat the mistake” it made by electing Lomjaria. “What is directly implied is that they will no longer support an independent candidate. Accordingly, we do not expect anything good,” she said.

Pataraia also wrote on Facebook on September 30 in which she claimed that the Georgian Dream party probably already has a favorite candidate for the Public Defender, and added that this is Ketevan Chachava, who, according to Pataraia’s assessment is “the mother of several GONGOs [non-governmental organizations loyal to the government].”

According to Eduard Marikashvili, the chairperson of the Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI), by stating that they will not nominate a candidate, the Georgian Dream party is trying to create an environment where “society will have the perception that Georgian Dream has no input in this process and doesn’t interfere in the selection.” But, he argues, even though formally it might be so, “it is impossible to make any predictions about what processes will take place behind the scenes,” Marikashvili told Mtavari Arkhi TV on 29 September.

Marikashvili emphasized the importance of electing a new Public Defender by consensus between the parties. “Multi-party support is important for legitimacy because it shows the public that the Ombudsman is not a party position and does not carry party interests,” he said.

Marikashvili says, if the government conducts the process in a way that leaves open questions, or will sabotage the process entirely, “it will have a very large international resonance.” “Therefore, selecting a candidate for this position and standing above party interests in this process is essentially important not just for the Georgian Dream but for the country in general,” he underscored.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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