US Department of State sanctions four Georgian judges for “Significant” corruption
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a statement announcing that the US Department of State has publicly designated Mikheil Chinchaladze, Levan Murusidze, Irakli Shengelia and Valerian Tsertsvadze under Section 7031(c) visa restriction authorities. “These individuals abused their positions as court Chairmen and Members of High Council of Justice, undermining the rule of law and the public’s faith in Georgia’s judicial system” – reads the statement.
The statement further reads that the United States “continues to stand with all Georgians in support of democracy and the rule of law and will continue to promote accountability for those who abuse public power for personal gain.”
Almost immediately after the announcement, US Ambassador Kelly Degnan issued a recorded statement explaining the State Department’s decision.
According to her: “the State Department determined, based on credible and corroborated evidence, that these individuals abused their public positions by engaging in significant corrupt activity. Their actions undercut judicial and public processes by offering benefits to or coercing judges to decide cases in favor of political allies and manipulating judicial appointments to their benefit. Their corruption undermined rule of law and democratic processes, damaging the Georgian public’s faith in the independence of one of the most important democratic institutions.”
She further noted that “under US law credible evidence of significant corruption, such as this, results in designations. These designations prevent these individuals and their immediate family members from traveling to the United States”.
She noted that every Georgian citizen deserves justice, the rule -of law, and the right to a fair and independent judicial process regardless of his/her wealth, family, or political connections. She went on to say that corruption and judicial interference obstruct Georgia’s European integration and that the US continues to support Georgia and its citizens in their European aspirations. “This action was taken with achieving that goal in mind”- she said.
On April 6, the High Council of Justice held a session to discuss the sanctions against Georgian judges, by the Secretary of the U.S. State Department.
At the beginning of the session Nino Kadagidze, the Chairman of the High Council of Justice, called for a calm and appropriate response to the allegations made against her colleagues by the US State Department’s Secretary. She expressed hope that the department would present relevant evidence or reconsider the matter, and urged the public to refrain from making premature conclusions until more information is available.
Levan Murusidze claimed at the session that the allegations of corruption made against him were “just a cover, a proven method to achieve a certain goal”. According to Murusidze, that goal was the US Embassy’s desire “to control the judicial system”, which he claimed “they have been attempting to do for years through various means”, including through NGOs, opposition parties, and international organizations.
He emphasized: “The important thing is not whether the US or the European Union will impose sanctions on Levan Murusidze, this is my personal problem. What is important is that Georgia does not lose its sovereignty and that the US embassy does not take over the judicial system, which, by the way, is happening not only in our country, but in other countries as well.”
Levan Murusidze was supported by another member of the High Council of Justice, Judge Dimitri Gvritishvili, who stated: “What has this man done that is different from what I have done, what Badri is doing? No one can say why he deserves it. Why am I not sanctioned or why is Mikheil Chinchaladze sanctioned?” He formally requested a meeting “as soon as possible” with the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, to whom he and Murusidze would present the evidence of the Embassy staff’s contact with them.
Coalition for Independent and Transparent Judiciary supports US sanctions on judges
The US Department of State’s recent decision to impose personal sanctions on members of the “clan”, an influential group of judges in Georgia, due to their alleged involvement in significant corruption, has been welcomed by the Coalition for Independent and Transparent Judiciary.
According to the Coalition statement, the governance of the “clan” has been a longstanding challenge for the Georgian justice system. The Coalition stated that “internal challenges to the independence of the court system are one of the focal topics of the Country Report of the US Department of State.”
The statement notes that despite several demands, the so-called Charles Michel Agreement, and the 12 EU conditions, the ruling party has not demonstrated the political will to fundamentally reform the court system.
The Coalition also notes that the “clan” is in alliance with the government and makes decisions on political cases not on the basis of justice, but to achieve narrow political or other goals. It is emphasized that recent reforms in the court system have increased the Clan’s dominance and undermined the independence of individual judges. The Coalition stresses that the sanctioned persons abused their positions as court chairpersons and as members of the High Council of Justice, thereby harming the rule of law and the public’s trust in the Georgian court system.
“The application of sanctions against the influential judges confirms the seriousness of informal influences and the problems of clan-based governance in the judiciary. These processes undermine the reputation of the entire judicial system while limiting the right of Georgian citizens to a fair, independent, and effective judiciary,” the Coalition says.
Government and opposition comment on sanctioning of four Georgian judges
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said in an interview with Imedi TV on April 5, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced sanctions against four Georgian judges, that “the fact that the Secretary of State was directly smeared with such a statement is particularly worrying.” After speaking at length about attempts to politicize the Georgian judiciary, Kobakhidze also focused on a candidate status and attempts to open a “second front” in Georgia. He also slammed President Salome Zurabishvili and stressed the need to punish “violent protesters” at the March 7-9 rallies.
Irakli Kobakhidze claimed that “corruption processes” were behind the sanctions against Georgian judges, and said that “the fact that the Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] was directly smeared with such a statement is particularly worrying. “It is very bad, it speaks badly of the people who convey this kind of information to the Secretary of State,” he stressed.
As an example of an attempt to politicize the judiciary, he cited the Western partners’ demand that decisions concerning the judiciary be taken in the Parliament with the support of 2/3 of the opposition, which, according to Kobakhidze, “directly meant that the National Movement should have had a controlling stake in it. For example, judges should not have been appointed without the participation of the National Movement.”
He also claimed that the U.S. imposed sanctions on Georgian judges based on “zero evidence.” “Zero evidence, hidden from us? A crime was committed and they are hiding it from us? Or why are they hiding it from us? It is not serious, is it? If a crime has been committed, you should be interested in telling the other side about that crime, or at least telling the public about it… Okay, you don’t want NGO transparency, but at least be transparent here and tell the public that this or that judge has committed this or that crime. Why don’t you say so?” said the chairman of the ruling party.
In a letter sent today to the US Secretary of State, the Georgian Foreign Minister Darchiashvili says that the US State Department’s decision to sanction the judge “which was made public without presenting any evidence, is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable.” Darchiashvili expresses hope that the State Department will provide relevant evidence or reconsider its decision saying that otherwise “the state of Georgia and the Georgian people perceive this as pressure on the independent court of the sovereign state and gross interference in its activities, which will damage the long-standing friendly relations between Georgia and the US.”
The representatives of the opposition also evaluated the judges’ dismissal.”The conviction of the judges by the USA is a sentence not only for them but also for the Georgian authorities and a direct signal to Ivanishvili that Washington and the West have finally lost trust in the Georgian Dream” – Mamuka Khazaradze, one of the leaders of “Lelo”, writes on the social network.
“The US decision to sentence four people is a clear confirmation that there is a clannish, corrupt court in Georgia, and all political prisoners who are currently serving sentences by this corrupt, politically motivated court should be released immediately,” – Chairman of the “United National Movement”, Levan Khabeishvili, announced at the briefing.
Ex-prime minister and leader of the party “For Georgia” Giorgi Gakharia noted: “The US’s sanctioning of Georgian judges is a clear message that the responsibilities will be personalized for everyone who undermines Georgian democracy and the rule of law.” Now it’s time for Ivanishvili to come out and take his personal responsibility!”
Opposition calls on the President not to convene Extraordinary session
The representatives of the opposition called on the President of Georgia not to convene the extraordinary session On April 11, which they requested, on April 19. Opposition MP Tamar Kordzaia announced this at a briefing in the Parliament.
According to Kordzaia, the reason for changing the decision was that two opposition MPs – Levan Khabeishvili and Ana Tsitlidze left Georgia unplanned and the opposition did not have enough votes to make a decision regarding the creation of the investigative commission.
The sole matter on the agenda of the Parliament’s extraordinary session should have been the formation of a temporary investigative panel to investigate corruption and other criminal conduct in the justice system. The issues to be investigated by the temporary investigative commission of the Parliament should be: the existence of an influential group of judges in the judicial system, which illegally interferes in the administration of justice and the selection and promotion of judges, alleged facts of illegal influence on judges, corruption and nepotism.