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Georgia’s first woman president Salome Zurabishvili has come under fire from women’s groups for appointing as her parliamentary secretary a man who ‘portrayed sexual harassment as almost the norm’. The groups cited comments made by Dimitri Gabunia while representing former NGO-head Zviad Devdariani, who has been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by around dozen women.
Despite the objections, the president appointed Gabunia on 18 December ‘as there is so much work to do in the parliament already’.
At a press conference in April, Gabunia asked ‘did Devdariani do something that we all don’t do? I’m talking about texting. Or shall we prohibit messaging and communication throughout the country?’.
Georgia’s Public Defender concluded on 2 November that devdariani sexually harassed at least three women.
[Read more about Gabunia’s statement on OC Media: Devdariani ‘to sue women’ who have accused him of sexual harassment]
The Georgian Women’s Movement, Safari, the Equality Movement, and several other groups issued an open letter calling on Zurabishvili not to appoint Gabunia after she confirmed on 6 December that she was considering him for the role.
The groups told Zurabishvili she had an ‘important role in empowering women’s rights’ and said her actions were even more important now as parliament would soon discuss a bill outlawing sexual harassment.
‘It was especially hard to hear that Dimitri Gabunia is being considered for the position of parliamentary secretary of our newly elected president’, the groups wrote, elaborating that ‘in the era of #MeToo, a gender-insensitive person who has portrayed sexual harassment almost as the norm and something he does, should not be appointed to a highly responsible positions in the government service’.
The Women’s movement said they planned to organise protests against Zurabishvili’s decision. One member of the group, Ida Bakhturidze, told Liberali that Zurabishvili could have met with feminist groups to learn about their objections to Gabunia’s candidacy, but she decided not to.
‘One of the victims of sexual harassment from Zviad Devdariani met Zurabishvili in a café and explained to her why appointing people like Gabunia to the presidential administration was a problem. She had that information. If she needed more information, she had the opportunity to meet us but she didn’t wish to. This is why we are going to make her hear our voices’, Bakhturidze said.
Gabunia called the outcry over his appointment ‘unserious, incompetent, unqualified, and ridiculous’.
‘Identified with a client’
On 10 December, the Georgian Bar Association, the state body that authorises lawyers to practice law, issued a statement in defence of Gabunia.
Quoting a Law on Lawyers the organisation said ‘a lawyer is obliged to protect their client’s rights and interests and use all measures in this process that are not prohibited under law or professional ethical norms’.
The statement said that while defending the interests of a client, a lawyer may use a strategy that does not reflect their personal opinions if it provides an effective defence of their client’s rights.
‘Therefore, critical statements against Dimitri Gabunia are an example of identifying the lawyer with his client […] which is unacceptable for the interests of justice in a democracy. Moreover, negative statements made about Gabunia go against the acknowledged principles of legal freedom of expression’, the statement said.
‘I wouldn’t appoint him’
On 19 December, Dimitri Tskitishvili, an MP from the ruling Georgian Dream party, said he did not like Gabunia’s statement that there was nothing unusual about Devdariani’s behaviour.
‘I wouldn’t appoint Gabunia’, he told journalists when asked about how he feels about his appointment as a parliamentary secretary of the president.
‘I wouldn’t appoint him. His statement was quite ambiguous, but I will not dig deeper into whether he should have been appointed or not. This is the president’s prerogative alone.’
‘She will decide herself who’s going to be effective and qualified communicating with parliament. We don’t make that decision; I think it would not be right to show my attitude’, said Tskitishvili.
Gabunia threatens to sue if ‘legal boundary of criticism’ crossed
On 20 December Gabunia replied to calls against him saying it was time to ‘put an end to insinuations and false accusations once and for all’.
He recalled the statement of Georgian Bar Association and said he shouldn’t be identified with his client as if he ‘endorsed or did not endorse his position’.
‘I call on them to stop making statements with double standards. During the [presidential election] these people were calling Zurabishvili unpleasant names. I won’t comment on this anymore. The statements of this movement are unserious, incompetent, unqualified, and ridiculous’, Gabunia told journalists, before calling on the women’s groups to consult with lawyers.
‘If they cross the legal boundary of criticism, they will receive a legal response’, said Gabunia.
Salome Zurabishvili has not responded to the criticism she’s received from feminist groups for appointing Gabunia.
Several women’s rights activists complained that she did not consult with them in the election period despite offers.
Zurabishvili did not show up to any of the events inviting presidential candidates to discuss women’s rights, for which she was harshly criticised by women’s rights groups.
[Read more about Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili on OC Media: Georgia’s first female president]