Harsh sentencing, influential role of prosecutors, low acquittal rate and excessive use of pre-trial detentions and “practically non-existent” practice of bail are among the concerns raised upon conclusions of a ten-day visit to Georgia by the UN working group on arbitrary detention on June 24.
During the visit, held upon the invitation of the Georgian government on June 15-24, the panel of experts, led by El Hadji Malick Sow of Senegal, visited various detention and prison facilities in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Kutaisi and Batumi and interviewed in private up to 160 detainees. The group also met several government ministers and other senior officials from the executive, judicial and local authorities, as well as with civil society representatives.
The group, which plans to table its final report in March, 2012, said during laying out its preliminary findings at a news conference in Tbilisi, that although the law generally provides appropriate protection for the independence of the judiciary, the internal practices of the judiciary may not be in conformity with the international standards and local laws.
The group said that it had received “a lot of information” supporting the notion that the rights of accused “are quite often minimal in relation to those of the prosecution.”
“The fact that about 90% of cases that go through the court resort to plea bargain arrangements with minimal intervention from judges is alarming” El Hadji Malick Sow said. “Various parties interviewed, including lawyers, held the view that judgments often favor the prosecution over the defence.”
With the acquittal rate only 0.1%, some of the detainees interviewed by the UN working group say that they felt pressured to agree to a guilty plea and participate in plea bargain as there would be minimal chance of acquittal and higher chance of excessively harsh sentencing.
“The lack of use of bail and the strict zero tolerance policy of the government contributed to Georgia having one of the world’s largest prison population,” El Hadji Malick Sow said. “Alternative measures of detention must be used, particularly in cases where it is clearly justifiable to do so.”
The UN working group said that use of bail “are practically non-existent” and many detainees, who qualify and applied for bail, were denied in this measure.
The group also criticized 2009 decision of the Georgian Parliament to amend the law and increase maximum punishment for administrative offenses from 30 to 90 days. The group said that temporary detention isolators are not fit for long-term detention and rights of detainees in this regard are “not adequately protected.”
“The judiciary in Georgia is capable of making fundamental progress through the various positive reforms it has made, but it must demonstrate its independence and impartiality by ensuring that the right to fair trial is granted without bias, to the parties before it,” the group said.
Speaking at the news conference Vladimir Tochilovsky, a member of the group from Ukraine, said that there had been “quite a radical reform” of the criminal procedure code, which should be appreciated.
“More elements of fair trial were introduced; the procedure became more adversarial. At the same time – maybe because the law is quite new – there are still issues where improvements can be done,” he said.
The working group said it hoped to have the opportunity to also visit breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “but due to particular circumstances outside its control, this could not be possible.”