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Georgian authorities move to ‘abolish’ crucial check on official abuses

27 December 2021
Londa Toloraia. Screengrab from the State Inspector’s Service video.

The Georgian authorities have moved to overhaul an agency tasked with investigating grave crimes by officials in what the agency’s current head has warned amounts to abolishing it.

Lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party put forward draft legislation on Monday that would split the State Inspector’s Service’s two functions — protection of personal data and investigatory powers to go after misdeeds by the public officials — into two new agencies. 

Key watchdog and opposition groups have raised the alarm over the plans, claiming the government plans to gut an institution that has been highly critical of abuses of power. 

The agency’s head, Londa Toloraia, has speculated the move could be aimed at pushing her from her position, which she was due to hold until 2025. The State Inspector’s Service has been responsible for a number of high profile investigations since it was created in late 2019, and has in several instances issued highly critical conclusions finding the authorities at fault.

The authors of the new legislation have insisted that their amendments would rule out any conflict between the agency’s two functions, a problem never publicly raised by the ruling party before and one dismissed by watchdog groups as not having arisen since the agency was launched.

The bill envisages a transition period until electing the new chairs of the agencies in March.

‘Punishment for its independence’

On Monday, State Inspector Londa Toloraia claimed that the speed and timing of the amendments, which were introduced in an expedited manner, were a calculated move to avoid scrutiny.

‘The new draft law envisages not reorganising the [State Inspector’s] Service but abolishing it’, she said. ‘This is not a reform […] This is a punishment of the Service for its independence.’

She said the bill was deliberately timed to coincide with the holiday season, when many Western diplomats and staff of international organisations were on holiday. She also pointed out that the bill was tabled while she was on maternity leave, after giving birth just days previously.

She also claimed not to have been informed of the proposals in advance, having found out that her agency may be reformed from news reports.

Toloraia pointed out that the bill was introduced shortly after Parliament shelved a draft law introduced by her office to strengthen personal data protections and while another bill to give her office more power to pursue cases of abuse of authority had been also ‘ignored’. 

Guram Imnadze, Director of Democracy and Justice Programme at Tbilisi-based Centre for Social Justice, was among the critics of Georgian Dream’s latest move.

Imnadze claimed on Sunday that the amendments were a response to the State Inspector’s office ‘demonstrating that this agency and their current leadership actually want to create an independent service free from political interests’.

While not ruling out the two new agencies set up to replace it may have a more robust and expanded mandate on paper, he said the ruling party would appoint more loyal people to lead them.

A short but substantial record

The State Inspector’s Service was established in November 2019, incorporating the former Personal Data Protection Inspector’s Office launched in 2013 while also investigating allegations of ‘grave crimes’ committed by law enforcement agencies and officials.

The agency was originally announced by then-Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili in February 2018. Kvirikashvili underlined that this was among Georgia’s obligations under the EU-Georgia Association Agenda

While the agency has struggled to gain cooperation from the Chief Prosecutor’s Office and their mandate and staff remained limited, Toloraia’s Office have interjected into several scandalous cases.

On 7 December, less than three weeks before the proposed reforms were made public, the State Inspector concluded that the Penitentiary Service had mistreated former President Mikheil Saakashvili in prison by releasing footage of him and publicising his food intake while on hunger strike.

The agency are still probing if Saakashvili was subjected to inhumane treatment by the Georgian authorities. 

On 25 December, one of the authors of the bill, MP Guram Macharashvili, denied any connection of their initiative with ongoing political processes. 

Talking to Imedi on 27 December, Sozar Subari, a leading Georgian Dream MP, described Toloraia’s offices as an ‘ugly institution’ that existed in parallel to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, which he said was ‘constitutionally, the most independent’ agency.

The prosecutor’s office has been frequently accused by critics of being loyal to the ruling party.

Last year, the State Inspector found that Tbilisi police violated codes of juvenile justice and police ethics while handling the questioning of 15-year-old Luka Siradze, shortly before he took his own life in December 2019. 

[Read more on OC Media: Teenage boy takes own life in Tbilisi following ‘psychological abuse’ by police]

In September this year, the State Inspector’s Office concluded that the Interior Ministry breached personal data regulations by publicising footage of Lekso Lashkarava, a camera operator at TV channel Pirveli who died after being attacked by a mob of violent extremists on 5 July in Tbilisi.

The footage, according to government critics, served to form the public opinion that Lashkarava was a drug addict and could have died of a drug overdose instead of the injuries he sustained during the attack.

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian authorities fail to produce autopsy 5 months after journalist’s death]

In August, the State Inspector also did not spare the infamous Ninotsminda orphanage, finding them to have violated the rights of children by broadcasting footage of them live on Facebook. 

[Read more on OC Media: Child abuse allegations dog Georgian Church orphanage]

According to a special report by the Public Defender, none of the four criminal investigations launched in relation to the orphanage, including one alleged case of rape, has been concluded so far.

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