Amb. Degnan Interviewed by Mtavari and Imedi TV Channels Following the Sanctioning by US of Georgian Judges

On April 6, the US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan gave a television interview to the government-critical Mtavari TV, in which she spoke about the reasons behind the US State Department’s sanctioning against four Georgian judges, US-Georgia relations, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, and other issues.

She spoke about the steadfast support of the US for Georgia for over 30 years, and the various areas in which the US has provided support to Georgia- social, economic, defense, public health, etc. stressing that the US has been helping Georgia for over 30 years to achieve its aspiration to become a secure, prosperous democracy that is part of the European family. She said:” Everything the United States has done here for over 30 years has been to help Georgia achieve that goal of a secure, prosperous democracy, and that includes building strong democratic institutions.”

She then said that Secretary Blinken’s announcement a day earlier about sanctioning of four Georgian judges makes clear that “individuals who are involved in corrupt acts, who are holding back Georgia from having an independent judiciary, are not eligible to enter the United States”,- stressing that such designations are required under the US law “whenever we have sufficient credible evidence that individuals are involved in significant corrupt acts. That was determined, and that is why these designations were announced yesterday”. She added that :”it’s up to the Georgian authorities if Georgia wants to open an investigation and pursue these allegations or any allegations of corruption.”

Asked about the claims by a sanctioned judge Murusidze, that the “US took these steps to take over the Georgian judiciary”, she dismissed allegations off, saying that on the contrary, “these steps were taken in support of Georgia’s desire for an independent judiciary”. She recalled that when Georgian Dream came to power with a stated goal of cleaning up the judiciary the US was actively working with this government on four waves of judicial reforms, which “produced some really important progress”. She added: “Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen a lack of political will to follow through on the meaningful reforms that are necessary to truly transform the judiciary into an independent institution.”

She also stressed that these four individuals, based on the specific information available to the US, were blocking the ability of hard-working professionals dedicated to an independent judiciary, to do their jobs.

Asked who would be next on the sanctions’ list, the Ambassador said that such decisions are the result of a rigorous process and the US doesn’t preview its sanctions and expressed hope that the US will continue to work with the government and other partners in the fight against corruption in Georgia.

In response to the question regarding GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze’s allegation regarding the attempts at blackmail via a telephone conversation, the Ambassador stated she “has no idea what he’s talking about” saying she has nothing to hide. She noted that this is worrying “since this suggests that there is continuing illegal surveillance of phone calls”.

Commenting on the ruling GD’s “second front” rhetoric, she reiterated that the US “has never pressed Georgia to open a second front” and that the US has always been mindful of the sensitivity of Georgia’s situation, with 20% of its territory being under Russian occupation and the ongoing “tremendous pressure from Russia”.

Speaking about the Foreign Agents’ law, the US Ambassador drew a parallel with a similar law in Russia, recalling the disastrous effect it has had on Russia’s civil society. She stressed that there is already ample transparency already on how foreign assistance is being used in Georgia and emphasized that the law’s objective was “shutting down voices and labeling and stigmatizing those who are working on behalf of Georgia”.

Commenting on the case of Mtavari TV General Director Nika Gvaramia, Amb. Degnan said: “We’ve raised questions about Mr. Gvaramia’s case, both the timing and the charges against him, since the very beginning. We continue to be concerned and follow the Public Defender’s reports that indicate that there are signs that this was a political prosecution”. She also underlined that the case is a “perfect example of why Georgia needs an independent” adding that in countries as polarized as Georgia, an independent judiciary is essential because there has to be a place where the public can go and have a final resolution knowing there hasn’t been political interference.

Asked about former President Saakashvili’s health Ambassador said:” This is very serious, and we were very concerned with the most recent report from the Public Defender that showed further deterioration in Mr. Saakashvili’s health”. She noted that a recent US congressional delegation has also expressed its concerns. She emphasized that “the government needs to take further measures to be sure that there’s no further deterioration in Mr. Saakashvili’s condition and that instead, he begins to recover and regain his strength”.

Asked whether she thinks that the West was “soft” on Georgia in recent years, Ambassador noted that the US worked with whatever government was in power, regardless of the party.” She noted: “We’ve worked very well with the Georgian Dream for years on many different issues, and we still do across the board. We have so many different priorities, such as healthcare, education, the economy, energy, and independence”.

Asked whether she thought that Georgia is better prepared than before to join NATO Amb. Degnan said she believes there is a “tremendous opportunity here” adding that NATO is not only military but also a political alliance, therefore “while Georgia has made considerable progress on the military, there are still many steps including the rule of law, that Georgia needs to pay more attention to”.

She also spoke about Georgia’s EU integration saying: “I am putting all of my effort into Georgia getting candidate status because I want to see Georgia take that important step.” She praised President Zurabishvili for promoting Georgia’s interests in the European capitals and stressed this is “this is a huge opportunity for this country to make an important step forward on the path to European Union membership, and we all want to see that happen this year.”

Later in the evening, the Ambassador sat down for one more interview, this time with pro-government channel Imedi TV, essentially echoing what she said with Mtavari TV. Asked by the host about allegations of U.S. pressure on Georgian judges via USG programs, Ambassador Degnan said the US “has never exerted pressure on any judge in the Georgian judiciary” adding: “All the work we have done for years with the Georgian judiciary, and with the Ministry of Justice, has been designed to help improve the functioning of the judiciary, to improve transparency”, mentioning in this context exchanging best practices and lessons learned between the American and Georgian judges, through special programs.

She said she disagreed with the anchor’s assessment, alleging that the GD-backed Foreign Agents’ law was not similar to the Russian law and was more like FARA, saying: “I’d have to disagree fully with the premise of your statement that these laws were in any way similar to the United States laws or other laws that are under consideration elsewhere. This was a Kremlin-inspired law. This was aimed at targeting the NGOs, who are working to improve their communities, to help other Georgians, labeling them as traitors, as foreign agents”.

Asked by the presenter about the allegations that Western assistance was going to the “extremist” parties and organizations she said: “Well, again, I cannot agree with your characterization of these parties or how we use our assistance. The United States does not support one political party over another political party. We support the people of Georgia. Everything we do here is in support of what the people of Georgia say are their priorities”- and went on to detail the many areas in which the US has provided significant assistance to Georgia for over 30 years.

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