Parliament launched on January 16 discussion of a draft amendment to the criminal procedure code, initiated by the Justice Ministry, which, if approved, will make it possible to apply jury trials to those cases in which former government officials were charged after the new government came into power.
Jury trial was introduced in Georgia in late 2011, but currently it only applies to cases of aggravated murder and cases of murder committed in the heat of passion, as well as in cases of rape. It also only applies to the cases heard by Tbilisi and Kutaisi city courts. So far jury trials were held only in three cases.
According to the proposed draft jury trials should also apply to those cases in which former or current officials face criminal charges; the same should also apply to those who have not held public office but are charged into those same cases in which former officials were involved.
Alexander Baramidze, deputy justice minister, told lawmakers during the discussion of the draft at the parliamentary committee for legal affairs on January 16, that one of the ways to dispel allegations that charges against former officials were politically motivated was to provide as much transparency as possible and to put these cases before jury trials.
He said that number of cases in which former officials were involved and to which jury trials might apply if proposal is approved, might possibly vary from ten to twenty.
During the discussion of the draft by the parliamentary committee for legal affairs on January 16 lawmakers from the UNM agreed in principle to the proposed draft and also offered to further broaden scope of jury trials by making it applicable to other criminal cases such as robbery, theft and domestic violence. The proposal was not shared by the Justice Ministry and lawmakers from the Georgian Dream; but the government seems to agree on another proposal by the UNM, which offered to make jury trials applicable not only in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, but also in Batumi.
The government also plans to submit to the Parliament a separate draft also about jury trials, which is expected to cause more debates; in particular the planned proposal is about the right of parties, prosecution and defendant, to choose whether to have a jury or trial by judge.
During the hearing on January 16 parliamentary committee for legal affairs did not go into details of discussion of the planned proposal, because it was not formally initiated, but during the hearing the issue was repeatedly raised by UNM lawmakers, who expressed concern that changes should not be made at the expense of downgrading defendants’ right to freely choose whether to have a jury or trial by judge.
Deputy Justice Minister Alexander Baramidze responded that the current wording in the existing code was ambiguous and was not anyway giving such outright freedom to a defendant. Reportedly the planned proposal by the government is offering to give final say in deciding whether to have jury trial or not to prosecution, which will be opposed by UNM lawmakers, who say that the current wording in the existing code clearly gives a defendant freedom to choose.
The current code now reads that during preliminary hearing “if the parties do not jointly reject to have jury trial, judge sets date for a session to select jurors.” A separate article of the same code reads that if the charges brought against a defendant envisages prison term “the case is heard by jury trial, except when a defendant motions for the case to be heard without jury.”
There is also one provision in the current code, which says that if holding of jury trial in substance violates right to fair trial, a case can be heard without jury upon decision of a presiding judge and approval from the Chairman of Supreme Court.