On 7 October, the Public Defender of Georgia, Nino Lomjaria, presented her yearly report to Parliament regarding the state of human rights protection in the country. Lomjaria’s term in office expires on 9 December and the much-disputed selection of the new candidates is ongoing. Georgian Dream party MPs dedicated most of the lengthy debate to personal attacks on Lomjaria.
Yet, the report paints a comprehensive, if grim, picture. The 400-page document is based on more than 5,000 statements received by the Public Defender’s Office in 2021, the study of more than 11,100 telephone messages, and the results of hundreds of monitoring visits made by members of the Public Defender’s Office to the penitentiary and psychiatric institutions, as well as military units and other agencies.
The Public Defender’s Office had sent the 2021 report to Parliament in the spring, but the majority chose to postpone a review of the report until the fall session.
Key Findings of the Report
According to the document, in 2021, the human rights situation did not improve in Georgia, while in many directions, significant deterioration was observed. For this, the Public Defender chiefly blamed the weakness of the Georgian Parliament’s supervision over the executive.
The report noted that in 2021 various stage agencies ignored 63.1% of the taskings issued by the resolution of the Parliament, 18% were fulfilled partially, and only 16.1% – fully. Moreover, Lomjaria said the Parliament made a number of decisions in 2021 that infringed upon the independence of state institutions responsible for the protection of human rights.
The Public Defender’s report draws particular attention to the Parliament abolishing the State Inspector’s Service through an expedited procedure, as well as to the decisions concerning the justice system, “which lessened the degree of judges’ independence in Georgia, and, accordingly, the state of the justice system and the right to a fair trial.”
The report likewise highlighted “significant flaws” and “political bias” in investigations conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office and pointed to the so-called Cartographers case, the case of money laundering against founders of the Lelo for Georgia party, as well as the homophobic pogroms on 5-6 July, and the Ninotsminda Orphanage as examples. Regarding violations of the right to a fair trial, the Public Defender cited the example of imprisoned Mtavari Arkhi TV chief Nika Gvaramia.
The document also points to the “cynical” and “condescending” attitude of political officials towards journalists, especially those from critical media, as well as statements aimed at discrediting journalists, and decisions to bar journalists from attending state events.
Read the Public Defender’s full report on 2021 here.
Questions from MPs
After the annual report was presented, deputies had the opportunity to ask the Public Defender questions and react to her speech.
Questions from the Georgian Dream party
Georgian Dream MPs scorned the report, with their key messages coinciding, showing a degree of advanced preparation. They promptly accused Lomjaria of bias and claimed that her office’s report was not based on facts but on assumptions. Several MPs criticized the Public Defender’s attitude toward the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate.
Beka Odisharia, a GD MP, recalled the lawsuit filed by the Public Defender against Parliament in the Constitutional Court which disputed legislative changes granting ownership rights over forest areas to the Orthodox Church. He questioned what Lomjaria had against the Church.
Treading the same line, a majority MP from the newly formed People Power group, Guram Macharashvili, asked the Public Defender, “what was the purpose, to discredit the Orthodox Church, to insinuate that the Patriarchate has immeasurably greater rights than other denominations?”
Taking the line of political bias, another GD MP, Nino Tsilosani chided, “who gave you the right to question the legitimacy of the leader of the political force elected by the people the chairperson [of Georgian Dream]?” She was referring to Lomjaria’s statement that GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze overstepped the limits of political legitimacy when he threatened criminal prosecution of the Public Defender.
Meanwhile, GD MP Mariam Lashkhi claimed Lomjaria does not stand by “women who are victims of bullying” in politics, meaning the Georgian Dream MPs. Lashkhi claimed that the Public Defender has only defended the interests of one political party, most likely implying the United National Movement.
The Georgian Dream MPs have repeatedly slammed Lomjaria for her words “many Georgians burn more with shame than one would from the fire provoked by bombs, after hearing the words of Irakli Garibashvili” which she uttered in the past while criticizing the government’s stance on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Based on that statement, the Georgian Dream MPs made allusions – rehashing their now-familiar trope used against the opposition – that Lomjaria wanted Georgia to get engaged in war.
MP Rati Ionatamishvili, who is himself living with a disability, accused Lomjaria of using insensitive terminology – he said that when Lomjaria declared that the government was “blinded by hatred,” she made a discriminatory statement against visually impaired people.
Finally, Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili scolded the Public Defender for making statements related to Georgia’s EU candidacy, pointing out that the country’s foreign policy does not fall under the Public Defender’s purview. He said that the Constitutional provision saying that all state bodies must promote Georgia’s European integration should not be interpreted in a way to assume that all Constitutionally mandated bodies (like the Public Defender’s Office) shall meddle in the Foreign Ministry’s mandate.
Questions from the Opposition
The opposition had a markedly different attitude towards the Public Defender and, unlike Georgian Dream, approved of the Public Defender’s report and thanked Lomjaria for her service over the past five years.
The opposition’s questions were mostly substantive and related to shortcomings around human rights protection and recommendations for their correction.
For example, independent MP Tamar Kordzaia asked Lomjaria about existing obstacles to implementing her recommendations. For Georgia MP Ana Buchukuri asked the Public Defender about effective measures that can be taken to eliminate childhood poverty.
Meanwhile, United National Movement MP Roman Gotsiridze posed questions regarding the mechanisms for implementing the Public Defender’s recommendations to end illegal wiretapping.
Strategy Aghmashenebeli MP Teona Akubardia was interested in the Public Defender’s recommendations for protecting minority rights and their civil integration.
Members of the ultra-libertarian Girchi party were mainly curious about Lomjaria’s views about the relevance of the Public Defender’s function to the protection of human rights. While Fridon Injia, MP of the European Socialists party, asked Lomjaria whether the Public Defender’s institution was needed at all if the rule of law was upheld.
Public Defender’s Response Time
While answering MPs’ questions, Lomjaria stressed that she has been the target of “disinformation” and attempts to “discredit” her for the last five years. She noted that despite these attempts, the Public Defender’s Office was able to generate more public trust. Lomjaria affirmed that her institution’s main obligation was to remain independent, which she said it fulfilled.
While recognizing that there were people who both approved and disapproved of her work, Lomjaria underscored that “no one questioned the independence of the public defender, including from the government agencies, and this is probably the most important thing.”
Responding to GD’s accusations that she is biased, Lomjaria noted that she was indeed biased “in favor of people’s rights” and refused to be neutral “towards the facts of rights violations.”
“I have always had a strong position towards rights violations, regardless of the opposition and confrontation I had with influential and powerful institutions and people over the years,” the Public Defender remarked.
Responding to the question about the Constitutional lawsuit against Parliament, Lomjaria explained that the Public Defender’s office did so because they believed that the Parliament’s decision regarding the Patriarchate violated the right to equality between different religious denominations.
In response to Tsilosani’s comments, Lomjaria said that her criticism of the GD chairperson was “rather soft” and that “more could have been said”. “Mr. [Irakli] Kobakhidze came out and threatened the Public Defender of Georgia and the group of experts created by the office [to monitor Mikheil Saakashvili’s health condition], that we would be held criminally responsible because we were protecting human rights,” she added.
Retorting to criticisms about the level of trust in the Public Defender’s Office, Lomjaria referred to public opinion polls to stress that her Office “enjoyed much higher public trust than even this institution [the Parliament], where we are standing now.”
“It is an honor for me that in surveys, the Public Defender occupies the highest place of trust among state institutions such as the army, patrol police, and local government institutions,” Lomjaria added.
Lomjaria concluded her speech by urging Parliament to elect a more critical Public Defender than herself and added, “I would like for us all to celebrate together, as we receive the European Union candidacy in the nearest future, and when we join the European Union further down the road.”