Parliament passed on January 16 with 103 votes to 0 with its first reading draft amendment to the criminal procedures code envisaging applying jury trials to the cases in which former officials face criminal charges.
Although UNM supported the draft, some of its lawmakers, like MP Chiora Taktakishvili, argued during the debates that the government proposed this amendment because it failed to, as she put it, “bring under its control the judiciary” and the prosecution had no sufficient evidence to prove charges against former officials. Another UNM lawmaker Davit Darchiashvili said that in the current political situation when “people are polarized and those who were in the previous government are a priori declared as criminals” contains a serious risk that jurors might deliver verdict into the cases of former officials not based on evidence but based on political views.
Just before the vote Vice Speaker of the Parliament from UNM, Giorgi Baramidze, said that the parliamentary minority was supporting the proposal and was going to vote for it and expressed the hope that “constructive cooperation” would also continue over the draft during its second and third reading. MP Baramidze also thanked the parliamentary majority and the government for sharing some of the UNM’s proposal over the draft, in particular to make jury trials applicable not only to the cases which will be heard in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, but also in Batumi and also to allow filming of trials.
MP Baramidze also stressed that UNM would be insisting on the need for defendants to have full freedom in choosing whether to have a jury or trial by judges. Reportedly the government plans to propose a separate draft amendment to the criminal procedures code which will offer giving final say in deciding whether to have jury trial or not to prosecution.
Coalition for Independent and Transparent Justice, a group uniting over thirty local non-governmental organizations, among them Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Transparency International Georgia, said in an open letter to Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili on January 16 that applying jury trials to the cases of former officials “will only be acceptable” if defendants retain right to say no to trials by jury.
“Public opinion and attitudes have already been established to a certain extent towards part of those criminal cases in which former high ranking officials face charges,” the open letter reads, adding that because of this reason there is “a significant risk” that in case of jury trials in these cases justice may not be properly exercised.
“Defendant’s right to say no to jury trial based on a justified motion can be viewed as a safeguard against such risk,” the group said.
The issue was raised for number of times by UNM lawmakers during the hearings at parliamentary committees and parliamentary session, but no detailed discussion was held because the planned proposal is not yet formally initiated. UNM MPs were stressing 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 said during the hearing of the parliamentary committee for legal affairs that the current wording in the existing code was ambiguous and was not anyway giving such outright freedom to a defendant.
The criminal procedures 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.
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.