The Grand Chamber of the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Georgian authorities violated two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in their treatment of former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili while in detention. However, the court stopped short of ruling that the charges against him were politically motivated, as Merabishvili’s lawyers claimed.
Merabishvili was sentenced to 5 years in prison in February 2014 on multiple charges, including misspending state funds, bribery, and exceeding official powers. He had complained to the ECHR that his prosecution and pretrial detention were politically motivated.
In their ruling on 28 November, the court said that ‘initially justified pre-trial detention of former PM of Georgia [was] later unduly used as a means to exert pressure on him’, based on his covert removal from his prison cell and late-night questioning during his pre-trial detention, which the court ruled had been ‘sufficiently convincing and therefore proven’.
The court also ruled that his continuing detention from 25 September 2013 onwards was not properly justified by the courts.
However, the court sided with Georgian authorities ruling that Merabishvili’s initial placement in pre-trial detention had not breached his rights.
They said it had not been established that his pre-trial detention had ‘principally been meant to remove him from Georgia’s political scene’. Merabishvili’s lawyers had said the charges were meant to prevent him from standing in the 2013 presidential elections.
Merabishvili was represented in court by London-based rights group the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) and Otar Kakhidze, former UNM member, and now one of the leaders of European Georgia, which split from the UNM in 2017.
Reactions from ruling party and opposition
The court’s decision has been interpreted differently by the ruling party and opposition.
Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani has insisted that the court’s ruling does not mean Merabishvili will be released from prison. Merabishvili will receive €4,000 (₾12,800) from the Georgian state in compensation for the breach of his rights.
Sozar Subari, a former Public Defender and current Minister of Refugees, said ‘it is unfortunate that we could not convince the nine judges that the prisoner had not been [covertly removed from his prison cell].
The EHRAC, which defended Merabishvili in court, claimed that the decision is a ‘landmark judgment resetting the Court’s case law on politically motivated proceedings’, as the court held that it will ‘closely scrutinise the explanations of States and draw inferences from indirect evidence, as it has done in Mr Merabishvili’s case’.
Tsulukiani added, that she finds Merabishvili’s removal from prison ‘less important’, and claimed the most important thing is that ‘Merabishvili will never be able to say that ‘political persecution took place against him’. According to Tsulukiani, the decision cannot be appealed.
Charges against Merabishvili included misspending state funds and vote-buying during the 2012 Parliamentary Elections. The elections led to the UNM’s defeat, with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coming to power in a landslide victory.
A number of former ruling party officials have been charged and arrested for a range of offences following the change of power. This includes former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is still wanted by the authorities, and former Mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava, who was convicted of exceeding official powers.