Controversy after Tbilisi Court fines businessman for ‘slandering judge’

22 September 2017
(Facebook)

Tbilisi City Court has imposed a ₾3,000 ($1,200) fine on Fady Asly, the head of the International Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, after a judge accused him of slander. The ruling has faced criticism from some local rights groups, with many claiming the ruling threatens freedom of expression in the country. Asly plans to appeal the decision.

The court called the ruling a precedent, claiming that ‘for the first time in the history of the judiciary, a judge has restored their honour and dignity through court’.

They have ordered Asly to retract his statement through the same media outlet he first accused judge Vladimer Kakabadze of corruption. However, Georgian law does not oblige media organisations to allocate time for such statements.

Asly, who heads Georgia’s International Chamber of Commerce, who claim to be the largest business association in the country, accused Kakabadze of corruption in an interview with TV Pirveli in March.

This followed Kakabadze imposing ‘unprecedentedly high fines’ on two tobacco firms in February. Kakabadze is a judge at Tbilisi City Court.

International tobacco firms Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco were fined ₾93 million ($38 million) and ₾270 million ($110 million) in separate cases after being sued by two Georgian companies, Tbilisi Tobacco and Omega Group. According to Eurasianet, Phillip Morris was accused of ‘dumping cigarettes at below cost in order to stamp out competition’. Later in June, an appellate court lifted the fine from Philip Morris.

‘Everyone, acquainted with this decision could not believe their eyes. Vladimer Kakabadze is clearly a corrupt judge for us’, Asly told TV Pirveli. He then criticised Georgia’s High Council of Justice, claiming the body ‘does not adopt tough decisions to stop this kind of practice’.

Court decision

On 6 April, Kakabadze sued Asly for slander, asking for ₾20,000 ($8,000) in compensation. According to Kakabadze, Asly’s statements not only damaged his reputation as a judge, but also ‘aimed to discredit the judge and the judiciary, violating the presumption of innocence’

Although Asly claimed his statements were ‘his personal opinions, protected by an absolute privilege’, the court ruled the ‘formulation of disputed statements went beyond the scope of an opinion and was accusing a person of corruption’.

‘These kind of accusations require an adequate reaction and are the basis for launching an investigation, which has not occurred in this specific case’, the court ruled.

Response and backlash

In a response, Asly said neither Tbilisi City Court, the Appellate Court, nor the Supreme Court will change his opinion that Kakabadze is a ‘corrupt judge’, calling the ruling ‘unconstitutional’.

‘Instead of protecting such judges, Georgia’s judiciary should cleanse the courts of dishonest elements to restore public trust and respect towards the courts’, Asly added.

According to him, the decision ‘aims to frighten citizens so they abstain from criticising judges and the judiciary’.  

The ruling was met with criticism from several non-governmental organisations and political parties. Giorgi Beraia, a lawyer at the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, a Tbilisi-based NGO, told Netgazeti the decision ‘could be concerning in terms of defending the standards of freedom of expression in the country’.

Non-parliamentary libertarian political party Girchi issued a statement on 21 September threatening to to ‘humiliate, violate the dignity of, and insult this immoral, dishonorable judiciary’.

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