Members of Georgia’s ruling party have tabled proposals to expand the powers of law enforcement agencies and the security services to indefinitely surveil suspects in criminal cases.
Georgian Dream MPs tabled a draft proposal amid outcry from watchdog groups, who say the amendments are unnecessary and invasive.
On Thursday, 11 civil rights groups, including Transparency International Georgia, the Social Justice Centre, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, released a joint statement criticising the draft law, calling it a ‘step back’ from regulations adopted in 2014.
They expressed concern about the periods of time and methods with which law enforcement agencies would be allowed to conduct surveillance.
The bill was put forth by Georgian Dream MPs Irakli Beraia, Aleksandre Tabatadze, Vladimer Chachibaia, and Rati Ionatamishvili.
‘They are gradually lowering the standard, and soon we may end up in a reality in which surveillance is permitted within a probe of all criminal code articles’, Lika Sajaia, a project manager at Transparency International told OC Media.
Georgian Dream cited several incidents pertaining to state security and counter-terrorism efforts to justify the amendments. However, Sajaia described the references as redundant, as the law already permits surveillance in these cases.
The Georgian Law on Counterintelligence Activities currently allows the State Security Service (SSG) to conduct surveillance without the need for a court order on security and terrorism grounds.
The proposed amendments would allow agencies to probe individuals for an unlimited amount of time under a list of as many as 100 articles of the Criminal Code, while allowing for extensions for the remaining articles that allow for surveillance.
The amendments, if adopted, would also allow law enforcement agencies to forgo notifying individuals surveilled under these 100 articles that they had been monitored.
‘What it means is that a person can be wiretapped for their whole life, through constant extensions, and never learn about it’, Sajaia said.
‘This is actually a real threat to the protection of privacy because if you never learn that you were wiretapped, you would never be able to dispute it in court. This is directly tied to one’s constitutional rights, including the right to a fair trial, which would no longer be possible to excercise’.
The initiative comes just seven months after a massive leak of what appeared to be surveillance files from the SSG, suggesting that widespread surveillance was already taking place.
The leaked files were mostly focused on tapped communications and physical surveillance of the clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but also included journalists and foreign diplomats in Tbilisi.
[Read more on OC Media: Leaked 'kompromat' against the clergy rocks Georgia]
Despite the scandal surrounding the contents of the leak, Georgian authorities have only opened an investigation into who was behind it, and not numerous allegations of wrongdoing suggested in the files, including cases of sexual abuse of children among some members of the clergy.
Similarly, Georgian Dream lawmakers refused to support setting up a parliamentary commission to look into the leaks and suggested instead, without any evidence, that their own former leader and ex-PM Giorgi Gakharia was behind the leak.
‘On the background of mass illegal intrusions, instead of improving standards of human rights protections, the ruling party grants yet more legal powers to law enforcement agencies, which, on its part, creates additional risks of arbitrary and groundless intrusion into private life’, the joint statement of watchdog groups read.