Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has joined a growing chorus of criticism towards the perceived lack of independence of Georgia’s judiciary.
In a press briefing Wednesday evening, the president called the ‘timing and form’ of two recent appointments to the High Council of Justice (HCoJ) ‘incomprehensible’, adding that it contradicted the judicial reforms agenda of the country.
On 31 October, the council, a stand-alone agency responsible for overseeing the judiciary, elected two men, Paata Silagadze and Giorgi Goginashvili, to replace two women, Tea Leonidze and Tamar Oniani, who resigned before their tenures expired.
The replacements happened without any explanation as to why the outgoing members stepped down.
The president was the latest to criticise the move following a number of Georgian watchdogs as well as the US and the EU embassies in Georgia, who underlined that the replacements happened while the public was focused on the 30 October municipal election runoffs.
The embassies also noted that there was no information either about the vacancies or the new candidates until during the judicial conference on 31 October to select them.
Tbilisi-based watchdog group the Georgia Democracy Initiative (GDI) noted that neither of the only two candidates slated for the positions ‘campaigned, gave any speeches, presented their agenda, or addressed the Conference in any manner’.
Both GDI and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) explicitly referred to the current HCoJ leadership as a ‘clan’ in their separate statements.
Judges hit back at diplomats
On Thursday, in the vein of a similar reaction in June, the Conference of Judges under the High Council of Justice hit back at the president and the EU and US embassies over their criticism, calling them ‘exaggerated, unfounded, and contradictory’.
The Conference of Judges, who claim to speak for over 200 Georgian judges, reminded ‘all interlocutors’ that Georgia was an ‘independent state’ and that its judiciary ‘obeyed only the law’.
‘All employees of diplomatic missions accredited in Georgia, including those heading them, according to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, have a duty to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State, not to interfere in domestic affairs’, their statement published by news agency IPN read.
Judicial reforms have become especially controversial in Georgia since 2017, the year the HCoJ was established. Critics have repeatedly warned that the ruling Georgian Dream party has sought to preserve an influential group of judges believed to have been loyal to the previous government under the UNM.
The controversy resurfaced in August when Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili unexpectedly announced that the government would not seek €75 million ($87 million) from the EU’s Macro-Financial Assistance programme, the provision of which was linked to Georgia pursuing reforms including of the judiciary.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian government rejects EU aid]
An EU-mediated agreement signed between the government and opposition in April envisaged the adoption a bill no later than the Spring of 2022 that would reform the composition and procedures of selecting members at HCoJ, as well as judges throughout the judicial system. The agreement included a moratorium on the appointment of new HCoJ members and supreme court judges until the reforms were implemented.
However, appointments continued in May and in July, Georgian Dream abandoned the April deal entirely.