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Leading members of the parliamentary majority have joined their voices to those of the victim’s family, questioning a decision by the president they had fought hard to elect last year. Some critics also questioned the opaque process in which President Zurabishvili makes pardoning choices.
Several members of Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, have stepped up their criticism of President Salome Zurabishvili for granting clemency to Ramaz Devadze, who was convicted in December 2014 of killing a police officer.
Devadze had served just over a third of his 12-year sentence for fatally shooting 22-year-old police officer Tarash Mukbaniani from the latter’s service pistol at a night club in Batumi, a port city on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Devadze claimed the killing was manslaughter, and unsuccessfully challenged his conviction in Georgia’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
Mukbaniani’s mother, Irma Odisharia, railed against the pardoning.
‘On what grounds did she let him out of prison? She should be held responsible for her decision!’, she told TV channel Imedi the day after Zurabishvili’s decision.
Talking to Imedi the same day, the president said she would not justify her decision as granting clemency was at the discretion of a president.
She also castigated those who had criticised her, without specifying who, for failing to wait ‘for two days’, when she would be back from a trip to Poland, indicating she may comment on the case later.
Georgian Dream members to publicly question Zurabishvili’s decision included Parliamentary Speaker Archil Talakvadze and the party’s general secretary, Mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze.
‘It is not clear how the president makes pardoning decisions ‘
This is the second high-profile disagreement between President Zurabishvili and Georgian Dream after a public dispute between the two in February over the president’s place on Georgia’s reformed National Security Council.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian President in disagreement with government over exclusion from security council]
In a previous, less public disagreement between Zurabishvili and Georgian Dream, the newly elected president voiced a desire in March to transfer the Pardon Commission from the presidential administration to the justice ministry. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani successfully resisted the initiative.
On 4 September, Tsulukiani joined others in reprimanding Zurabishvili’s pardoning of Devadze, adding that the list of candidates to be pardoned was not coordinated with her ministry.
In late December, the Chair of the Pardon Commission, Zviad Koridze, resigned, citing the practice of incoming presidents appointing new members to the commission.
The commission is usually composed of civil society figures and others and is responsible for drawing up a list of recommendations for a presidential pardon.
Since then, the President’s office has not shared any information about a replacement for Koridze and other commission members or on how the process of pardoning convicts is currently being carried out.
Ucha Nanuashvili, who as the Public Defender, served on the Pardon Commission from 2012–2017, told OC Media that as far as he knew ‘the Commission is not active under the current president’.
‘It is not clear how the president makes decisions [to grant pardons]. Some general criteria exist but the point of the commission is to ensure the risks, like the one which was not avoided in this case, are considered’, he said.
According to Nanuashvili, the commission worked as a filter, staffed with experts who sometimes went through cases for hours. ‘Unfortunately, these unilateral decisions shake the justice system’.
President Zurabishvili’s office declined to comment at this point.
Pardons and clemencies — frequently controversial
According to Zurabishvili’s office, she has pardoned 91 people since her inauguration in December 2018.
Pardons and clemencies have been a controversial issue in Georgia before.
Iago Nebieradze, who was convicted of robbery in 2009 and also previously spent time in prison in relation to the disappearance of a child in 2005, was released from prison in February 2018 after then-President Giorgi Margvelashvili halved his 5-year sentence.
Nebieradze raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl in the city of Gori in October 2018.
In 2018, Margvelashvili pardoned Vepkhia Bakradze, who was convicted of domestic violence. After being released, Bakradze slit the throat of his step-daughter in December.
Third Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemned Zurabishvil for pardoning Devadze, claiming that Georgian Dream had ‘given the green light to killing police officers’.
UNM and spin-off party European Georgia have been highly critical of Georgian Dream for ‘letting criminals out en masse’ in an amnesty after they came to power.
Following the prison torture scandal that contributed to the UNM’s loss in the 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream released about 24,000 prisoners.
In his ‘Warsaw plan’ unveiled in August, however, Saakashvili vowed to drastically reduce the number of prisons upon returning to power, keeping only ‘murderers, robbers, paedophiles, and a very limited number of other criminals’ under lock and key.