Tbilisi City Court has sentenced Georgian opposition activist Zviad Kuprava to nine months in prison for being in contempt of court after he made a vulgar statement about a judge in the court canteen.
Local rights groups have raised the alarm over the ruling, warning that it represents an erosion of the right to free speech.
On Thursday, at least ten non-governmental organisations including the Human Rights Centre, Transparency International Georgia, and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, called the case a ‘dangerous precedent of limiting free speech’.
The Georgian Democratic Initiative (GDI), a local rights group, is challenging Thursday’s ruling in the constitutional court.
Contempt of court is punishable with ‘a fine or corrective labour from one to two years, or with imprisonment for up to two years’.
On trial for petty hooliganism
The incident occurred in June 2018, while Kuprava was on trial for petty hooliganism.
According to prosecutors, Kuprava insulted the judge presiding over his case, who was not present at the time, at the canteen in the Tbilisi City Court building. He told police officers he ‘doesn’t give a fuck about the judge’ after they ordered him to return to the hearing, as he had been summoned by the judge.
Kuprava, who is the head of the Centre for Law Enforcement Reform, became widely known to the public after co-leading anti-government protests over the Khorava Street murder investigation last year.
He was initially put under 14-day administrative arrest on 11 June 2018 after the court ruled that he engaged in petty hooliganism and disobeyed police when he and other protesters attempted to block Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue with tents.
In February, the Georgian court remanded him in pre-trial detention for violating his bail conditions and failing to attend his court hearing. He also faced additional charges for kicking protest rally critic Irakli Zakareishvili in front of the court building in June.
Considering the time served in pre-trial detention, Kuprava will spend an additional three months in jail.
A ‘chilling effect’ on criticism of Georgia’s judiciary
Eduard Marikashvili, a lawyer from GDI who is representing Kuprava, told OC Media after the first hearing at the Constitutional Court on Friday that by cursing outside the courtroom, Kuprava did not obstruct justice and that the sentence contradicted his constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.
According to Marikashvili, the ruling by Tbilisi City Court ‘blurred the lines’ of constitutional justice as the incident occurred ‘beyond the court session area’. He said that vulgar insults could only be legitimately prohibited within the courtroom.
‘The ruling could have a “chilling effect” on criticism of Georgia’s judiciary’, Marikashvili said. ‘For instance, on an individual’s willingness to speak about the “clan” in the judicial system’.
[Read more on OC Media: The ‘clan’ in Georgia’s judiciary reattempt lifetime appointments]
According to Tamta Mikeladze, head of the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), a Tbilisi-based rights group, the legal definition of contempt of court is ‘vague’ which she said ‘already gives grounds to argue that it violates the right to free speech’.
‘Punishments under the Georgian Criminal Code are very harsh, including for contempt of court. This concerning case raises the possibility of restrictions on free speech being put into practice’, Mikeladze added.
‘First criminal prosecution for a free speech’
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Nika Melia, one of the leaders of the opposition United National Movement Party (UNM), said ‘It is no one's business who a Georgian citizen curses in a canteen’.
[Image. Nika Melia held aloft a picture of Judge Elene Goguadze, calling her an ‘executioner’. (screengrab from Kavkasia TV)]
Melia said that Kuprava’s was a classic case of politically motivated imprisonment and the ‘first case’ of criminally prosecuting someone for their political opinion under Bidzina Ivanishvili’s watch.
Bidzina Ivanishvili is the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party that ousted the UNM in 2012. He is deemed by critics to be the one calling the shots in Georgian politics despite not holding an official position.