TBILISI, DFWatch – The Council of Europe is to examine moves by the government of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili made ahead of a crucial parliamentary election in October.
The Advisory Board of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has put it on the agenda of its 90th plenary session to review amendments and additions to Georgia’s law on political unions of citizens.
The process to change Georgia’s legislation to make the election environment better started in the summer of 2011, and saw negotiations between the opposition and the government.
Eventually, the government secured agreement only from two parties among the opposition. The resulting bill was sent to the Venice Commission for final review, but after sending it, the ruling National Movement party made significant changes, as reported by DF Watch.
The reworked law package was passed in late December 2011, but commentators and the opposition claim that the law that was passed didn’t take into account recommendations from the CoE and was a departure from the agreement made with the two opposition parties. Even worse, articles and paragraphs were inserted into the law which hadn’t been presented to the public.
Since then, Georgia has experienced public protests and discussions as the feeble civil society has been trying to catch up on the new legislation. Local non-governmental and media organizations launched a campaign demanding to amend the law, arguing that it restricts freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, political activism, property and democracy in general.
The goal of the amendments is to make the political party financing system more transparent. There were introduced a number of restrictions which from the outset applied to political parties, but were also made to apply to anyone ‘indirectly’ related to parties.
The consequence was that organizations that make up the backbone of the fledgling civil society in the former Soviet country are in danger of being affected by the rules and may be barred from receiving further donations, because supporting them will be considered meddling with the internal politics of Georgia.
The law also applies to the voters. If a person receives financial aid from a political party, it will be considered as bribe and the voter will risk up to three years in jail.
The law ushered in last December granted authority to the Chamber of Control to monitor the financial transactions of parties and organizations, as well as businesses and individuals, to uncover corruption and illegal actions, and awarded the Chamber the power to issue fines without presenting evidence and without having to go through a court.
The Chamber recently started using its newly granted powers and fined the opposition bloc Georgian Dream several times.
Then it went on to carry out a wave of interrogations of people in the regions of Georgia far away from Tbilisi, asking questions and demanding them to explain whether they are supporters of Georgian Dream or other opposition parties.
This has caused concerns among local and international organizations, the opposition, and foreign diplomats in Georgia.
Today the Interior Ministry of Georgia told Interpressnews that none of the citizens who refused to be interrogated were fined; it also said that people being interrogated weren’t fined or detained.
But yesterday the ministry published a statement saying that it started an investigation of people who refused to be interrogated.
“The Chamber of Control of Georgia has forwarded materials to the relevant regional divisions of the police on certain individuals who neglected to appear and give explanations at the Department of the Political Party Monitoring in the process of legal proceedings (inquiry) regarding the case of administrative violation. Based on the received materials investigation was launched under the article 3482 of Criminal Code of Georgia in frames of which interrogation of relevant individuals is being held at the moment.”
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia John Bass responded to the development by expressing concern Thursday on his Facebook page.
Georgia’s Public Defender started an independent investigation into the interrogation in the far regions of Georgia, and into alleged violations of the rights of journalists; as well as the allegations that lawyers weren’t allowed to defend the rights of people being interrogated.
Amnesty International also responded to the wave of interrogations by releasing a statement titled ‘Georgian Chamber of Control must respect human rights in the ongoing probe on political financing.’
“Amnesty International received several reports that these examinations often are carried out in an aggressive manner, under heavy police presence, with people subjected to invasive searches and questioned about their personal political beliefs and activities, often while being denied their right to legal representation.” The statement says.
The organization writes that the questions are mainly about people’s political beliefs and activity and not about financial transactions, which is what the Chamber of Control should be working on.
“Amnesty International calls on the Georgian authorities to ensure that investigations carried out by the Chamber of Control of Georgia are conducted in accordance with the law and international human rights standards.”
The movement is appealing personally to the Chamber: “Amnesty International is calling on the Chamber of Control and the relevant Georgian authorities to ensure that the powers conferred on the Chamber of Control to question individuals are used only for the purposes and within the limits of law; the questioning is carried out with full respect of the human rights and the persons called for questioning have unimpeded access to representation by a lawyer of their choice.”