Election tensions highlight deeper problems with independence of judiciary in Georgia.

As tension increases in Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 1 October, a lingering problem that has been simmering in the background throughout the nine years since the Rose Revolution brought the government of President Saakashvili to power in 2003, has now come into focus. Throughout this period there have been many concerns raised about the lack of independence of the judiciary, an institution that was completely overhauled by the Saakashvili government in an effort to stamp out corruption. Concerns where raised as early as 2004 by an EU funded Rule of Law mission that was sent in the first days of the new government to support the process of reform.

Over the years, as the world watched with concern, Georgian judges adopted a zero tolerance attitude and narrow interpretation to the law, handing maximum sentences to those convicted of crimes without taking into account mitigating circumstances. Prosecution demands nearly always found favour and the role of the defence was not always properly recognised. Georgia’s prison population exploded, and conditions in prisons started getting worse and worse. On top of this a system of plea bargaining turned the judicial system into a market place where prosecutors  fleeced huge sums of money from those accused in return for reduced sentences.

The reaction of the international community was quite muted. Some took the view that this was a transition problem that would sort itself out over time. It was left to Georgian NGOs, including the indefatigable Georgian Young Lawyers Association to raise concerns, publish reports and exert as much pressure as they possibly could in order to minimise the damage. For a country that prided itself with its reform agenda and its democratic credentials the vulnerability of the judicial system has been Georgia’s Achilles heel for too long.

Things however are now coming to a head as the country prepares for elections next month. The Georgian judiciary continued with its habits when ruling over controversial cases involving the opposition, taking highly controversial decisions that have raised eyebrows in the international community.

A statement by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose delegation visited Georgia 20-22 August ahead of the forthcoming election gave a damning assessment of the situation, stating that “A fair and independent judiciary system is also fundamental to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections. After this visit, we have concerns as to the possibility of receiving proper legal remedy from the court system.”

An independent judiciary is an essential part of the system of checks and balances indispensable for any working democracy. Georgia’s judges have done a great disservice to their country by seemingly forgetting this important principle.

World attention to Georgia ahead of the forthcoming elections are now finally exposing this situation. The European Union in particular, which sees Georgia as a partner and close friend, needs to engage with the Georgian government to ensure that this problem does not fall again off the agenda, and instead becomes an important consideration for future relations.

(c) LINKS Analysis