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Published 2013 06 11, 18:10

Georgian Minister of Justice in Vilnius: There is no selective justice in Georgia

Georgian Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani says that Georgia's criminal system treats all suspects alike, irrespective of whether they are members of the opposition or ruling parties, rejecting claims of opposition persecution.
Gruzijos teisingumo ministrė Tea Tsulukiani
Georgia's Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani / Gruzijos Vyriausybės nuotr.

In an interview with BNS in Vilnius, the Georgian minister also said the new government's reforms are aimed at depoliticizing the justice system which was highly influenced by politicians during the times of the previous government.

Tsulukiani also stressed that Lithuanian businessman Saulius Vaitkevičius was recently detained in Georgia as officers wanted to investigate his partner's accusations against him, and believes that prosecutors of any other country would have done the same.

- A group of Lithuanian lawmakers from various political groups have recently issued a statement expressing concern over the situation in Georgia. The statement says that pressure on the Georgian opposition and arrests of former politicians and government officials raise concern over selective justice. Could you prove it with examples that justice provisions are equally applied to those in power and to those who are not?

- When we came to power to in October last year, we took very complicated legacy in terms of justice and in terms of elite corruption. The former government managed to fight corruption in lower levels and eradicated it completely - on the policemen level, on the small civil servants levels, but the corruption went up and the elite corruption was the legacy we received in October 2012.

We received also as legacy different criminal cases, on which justice has not been done. (...) So in November we started investigations of those cases among others. The opposition who was in power for nine years stated shouting and saying that this is not legally founded, we are politicians, we have immunity. Our principle is that no political status of somebody who is in power, of somebody who is in the opposition, can serve as immunity from criminal prosecution.

Another example is that very recently, the main prosecutors office did not refrain from initiating an investigation against current high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Agriculture. So there is no selective justice, the criteria are the same for former government representatives and for our own government representatives. These cases are pending also, and the difference is that some representatives of the former government group of high rank officials from the Ministry of Agriculture who came to power with us in October, are in jail now."

- But the situation in Georgia is sometimes compared to the situation in Ukraine. Aren't you afraid of being criticized by the EU?

- Georgia has been compared to Ukraine by Georgia's former government representatives because they lack other arguments. We don't have selective justice in Georgia because, as I said before, criteria are the same for representatives of our own government and the former government.

My goal as minister of justice of Georgia is to have and ensure transparent hearings and impartial trials. What do we do for that? We introduced in November new legislative amendments and now we have succeeded in having media back to the courtroom so that the society inside and outside the country can see what kind of evidence prosecutors can have, what kind of evidence the defense can have, how the judges act. The Saakashvili government kicked out media from the hearing rooms because they needed to have secret justice in Georgia, nobody from outside Georgia criticized that, which is pitiful.

Now we have the most transparent hearings possible.

We also managed to strengthen the defense. My predecessor wanted to have strong prosecutors against week defense. This is not my goal. My goal is to have equality of arms in court hearings - to have defense and prosecutors which are completely equal, so that judges can decide freely on the case.

We empowered the defense very recently, so any lawyer, any representative of the former government or the current government or authorities can gather evidences more freely. (...)

We authorized with the minister of foreign affairs the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to monitor all hearings, and they will be giving their rapport in the end. And the civil society is present also in the courtrooms. So this is not a debate or discussion about selective justice. What we are doing in the main prosecutor office is just gathering evidence and the judges should decide and judges are free - have been free since October last year, because my predecessor who was very well known for terrorizing and controlling judges fled the country the day after the election in October last year. And judges are free, so they decide freely if the prosecutor office evidence are well founded or not.

- Will your position as minister of justice change as you are in charge of the ministry and prosecutor at the same time?

- My predecessor made it up to the law under the former government according to which, in Georgia, the minister of justice became the general prosecutor of the country. And the main prosecutors office went under the umbrella of the minister of justice. Now we are changing this because we need complete depolitization of prosecutorial work. One week ago, parliament adopted a new law according to which the minister of justice is no longer the prosecutor. The minister of justice will continue to supervise the prosecutors' work in terms of observing general guidelines, human rights, at cetera. But here she will not have any more rights to be involved in any individual case, which is a positive step.

We didn't like the so-called Adeishvili era, which is the name of my predecessor, who would control everything. This man was more than minister of justice, my impression is that he was even prime minister or president of the country, because he controlled everything. This era is over now, this new law will be sent this week to the president of Georgia, and if he signs the law, then a new model of the main prosecutors office will enter into force."

- Going back to the situation in Ukraine, how would you comment on charges against ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko?

- Once again, I think that in any country politician's status or high official status should not be used as immunity from criminal prosecution. When evidence is freely and independently gathered and assessed by an independent free judge, the person should serve a sentence, which should be proportional and adequate. And this principle applies in Georgia and it should apply in Ukraine as well as in any other country.

- Lithuanian businessman Saulius Vaitkevičius was detained in Georgia in late May. There have been reactions in Lithuanian that he became a victim of political tensions in Georgia. Are these concerns justified?

- This businessman's arrest happened when he decided to fly out of Georgia. His partner, let's say, director of a private company in which he worked, filed a complaint with the main prosecutor's office on the 2nd of May. Two or three weeks ago, in the end of May, the Lithuanian businessman decided to fly out of the country. If he had been able to do so, the complain of his partner could not have been properly examined by the main prosecutors office. So the Lithuanian businessman was arrested at the airport. This is what any country's authorities would have done in the same situation. At the airport, he was authorized to call his wife, he was authorized to call his relatives a couple of hours after when he was put in jail, which was not an obligation under the Georgian law that he calls the second time to his family. He was provided with a translator and his lawyer was there - at the airport, he was able to come and defend him. So all the guarantees according to the Georgian law to defend and protect his rights to defense were respected.

The position of the prosecutors office is that there are some evidence that he wasted about 2 million lari of company funds. It's Article 182 of the Georgian Criminal Code.

So now he is free, he is not in jail any more, but he is obliged to stay in the country until the truth is proven and the truth is found.

This will allow him to show that he is right. This will allow him to gather evidence and show that the prosecutor office is wrong. This is how the prosecutor office works in any country.

For me, it is completely strange that once the complaint was filed, he decided to leave the country.

- How would you then comment on the reaction of Lithuanian politicians who said the arrest was suspicious?

- It's not up to me to criticize anybody's reaction. I think that any representative elected to a legislative and representative body should have the right to request information about his or her country's citizen's arrest in a foreign country. So it is something very natural. I think that our Georgian deputies would have expressed concern as the Lithuanian deputies did. What I am doing here is that I am explaining what happened in reality and in reality happened the fact that once the Georgian citizen, a representative of the same private company filed a complain to the main prosecutor office, the Lithuanian businessman did nothing but tried to fly out of the country.

- Following the elections last fall, the new Georgian government talked about the normalization of relations with Georgia. The Lithuanian government, formed after the fall elections, said the same.   But Russia is not good-willed when Lithuania, for example, sends requests for legal assistance. How the normalization of relations with Russia is going on in Georgia?

- We don't have now cooperation between Russian and Georgian institutions, so we don't have institutionalized official relations. I think that it will take some time so that we are able to have new official ties with Russia because we experienced a national tragedy in the August, 2008 war and very recently we had another very serious experience on the so called border with Tskhinvali region when they divided to advance the line (to build new barriers – BNS). I think that somebody who knows Russia a bit, knows as well that to improve relationships we need, first of all, to make them understand that we are equal, that we are - both of us - sovereign countries. Bur until we succeed in it, we can not just sit and wait. So what we are doing now is that we are trying to restore cultural ties with Russia, we are trying to restore commercial and infrastructural ties with them so that people can interact. So we don't have the same experience as countries had during the history of humanity when we have a war - out of that people who are neighbors, people become foreigners for each other.

So we are trying to create a kind of solid ground for a political discussion in the mean run and long run. We are not there right now.

From the law enforcement point of view, we don't have any cooperation either, which creates, of course problems, because the fight against crime is not something national and then you are in the neighborhood. you badly need to cooperate with your counterparts in such a huge neighboring country. But I am sure that it will come with time so that we restore between law enforcement agencies equal relationships.

It is a very complicated task, but I am very optimistic despite Russia's traditional approach towards its small neighbors. The fact is that we are neighbors and it will never change so we need to do something with this reality.

- What measures the new Georgian government is taking to regain territories it lost during the mentioned 2008 war with Russia?

- O nly through peaceful measures. Georgia's former government's war and aggression rhetoric is over. Because it leads nowhere. We need to restore mutual understanding with our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers. I think that with the Ossetians will be more complicated then the Abkhazians because Georgia's former government managed to destroy completely the trust which was showing up, the very first signals of friendship and mutual understanding thanks to mixed families, thanks to mixed villages in the Tshkinvali region. Because that war that was staged by Russia in August, 2008 Saakashvili's irresponsible foreign policy and rhetoric made the Russian scenario possible, a scenario of war and occupation of our territories. So the Ossetians have these opened wounds, the Georgians have the same problem, and I think will need more time then with Abkhazians to be able to sit around the table and discuss it peacefully.

But the new government will try to resolve those conflicts only through peaceful means (...). Because Georgia is a small country and we don't have our solders to be killed in a war without any purpose and real perspective.

- Lithuania is taking over the EU presidency in July, and bringing Easter Partnership countries closer to the EU will be one of our priorities. What are Georgia's expectations for relations with the EU?

- I think that since October last year, our government has managed to make more positive steps towards the EU within the framework of that initiative and dialogs, frameworks and programs with the EU. We are very confident with our colleagues from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and also the ministry of EU and NATO integration in Georgia that we will have a partnership with the EU, which allows us to improve our Georgian institutions and legislation so that one day we will become an EU member (...).

What we are doing now is that any single reform is discussed with the civil society, with the Georgian population, first of all, and it goes before the parliament after that. The government is doing everything to be in agreement with its own people. So that when we have a reformed country, it's felt as a fair and acceptable reform by Georgians themselves. Georgians' interest are first. We want to ensure they understand why these reforms are needed, and for that work we take advice, consultations with any EU experts, who are sent. At my ministry, we have a group of European experts who sit there, who have their offices in our building and they work with us on the judiciary, justice reform at cetera.

We explain what kind of reforms we lead in Georgia themselves and are not doing anything without Georgian people. That's a huge difference from the former government. The   Saakashvili government's rhetoric was I am a European-minded young guy who knows everything, and you Georgians you are backwords, you don't understand Europe. This is not our rhetoric. Our rhetoric is that we present something and we listen to Georgians and amend our reforms according to what Georgian people think.

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