Former prime minister and secretary general of UNM party, Vano Merabishvili, appeared before the Kutaisi City Court on September 12 for a preliminary court hearing, which also was his first public appearance since he was sent to pre-trial detention more than three months ago.
Ex-healthcare minister and now governor of Kakheti region, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, is a co-defendant in to the same case, which involves criminal charges into alleged funneling of over GEL 5 million of public funds into UNM party’s election campaign last year, when Merabishvili served as PM and Tchiaberashvili as the healthcare minister. The both deny charges as politically motivated.
Unlike Merabishvili, whom the court in Kutaisi sent to pre-trial detention on May 22, Tchiaberashvili is not in custody after he was released on GEL 20,000 bail on May 23.
Merabishvili, who has visibly lost weight since his detention, was brought in a courtroom in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city about 240 kilometers from Tbilisi, from his prison cell in the capital city and escorted back to Tbilisi prison No.9 after the preliminary court hearing was adjourned for a week.
“Of course I do not take this trial seriously, because the verdict is predetermined,” said Merabishvili, casting doubt over impartiality of the court in Kutaisi. “Of course the authorities will try to drag out the process, but I won’t be tired.”
“We fully realize that we are participating in a political farce,” Tchiaberashvili said during the hearing. “The authorities first and foremost want to suppress opposition’s voice in this country… Vano Merabishvili is a political prisoner and I am… a political accused.”
During a preliminary court hearing a presiding judge decides on the admissibility of evidence submitted by the parties and hears various motions from the parties; judge has also to decide whether the case should proceed further into trial on the merits or not.
During the September 12 sitting, the court started hearing prosecution’s lengthy list of pieces of evidence, bulk of which is unusually long list of witnesses, involving up to 4,000 persons, which the prosecutors say they plan to summon at the trial for questioning. The case involves alleged misspending of public funds from so called government’s employment program, which was launched by the previous authorities couple of months before the parliamentary elections in October, 2012. Thousands of persons were hired in frames of this program, but, prosecution claims, that these people were hired and paid not for declared intention to register unemployed citizens, but to perform various campaign-related activities in favor of UNM.
“There is no trial in the world where so many people would have been questioned. That’s a mockery of the society and an attempt to overshadow weakness of [prosecutors’ case] and their lies by simply reading out a long list [of witnesses’ names],” Merabishvili told prosecutors.
His defense lawyer, Giorgi Chiviashvili said that it’s actually impossible to question so many witnesses till February, 2014 when the maximum term of Merabishvili’s pretrial detention expires and when the court is expected to deliver its verdict. One of the prosecutors into this case, Natia Songulashvili, suggested that not all the listed witnesses might be summoned if the deadline approaches.
During the September 12 preliminary court hearing, Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili have both declined to be tried by jurors.
In January the Parliament amended the criminal procedures code to allow applying jury trials to high-profile cases in which former or current officials face criminal charges; but defendants, not the prosecution, have the final say in deciding whether to have a trial by a judge or jurors, according to the law.
“Mr. Merabishvili said that because he is a political prisoner, the prosecution will exercise pressure on jurors and he did not want any potential juror to be subject of any pressure,” Merabishvili’s lawyer, Giorgi Chiviashvili, told Civil.ge on September 13.
During the first day of the preliminary court hearing on September 12, one of the first motions filed before the presiding judge, Teimuraz Dgvareli, who is a judge since mid-1990s, was a request from the defense lawyers seeking recusal of the entire Kutaisi court and referring the case for further adjudication to the court in Tbilisi. The judge dismissed the motion as “legally groundless.”
Defendants and their lawyers have suggested that the court in Kutaisi will fail to adjudicate the case impartially; they say that their claim stems, among other factors, also from how Merabishvili’s and Tchiaberashvili’s appeals against applying measures of restraint – in case of the former the pre-trial detention and GEL 20,000 bail in case of the latter, was handled by the Kutaisi Court of Appeals.
The appeal in late May was adjudicated by chairman of the Kutaisi Court of Appeals, Malkhaz Guruli. Defense lawyers say that because judge Guruli is not a member of investigative collegium of the Kutaisi Court of Appeals, he was not authorized to preside over the appeal hearing.
Defense lawyers say that it constituted violation of Georgia’s criminal procedure code, as well as amounted to violation of defendants’ right to fair trial and for that reason the case, involving upholding of pre-trial detention for Merabishvili by judge Guruli, who the defense lawyers say was not authorized to preside over the hearing, will be taken to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Merabishvili’s defense lawyer Chiviashvili told Civil.ge that the complaint is expected to be lodged with ECHR by the end of this month.
The defense lawyers and Merabishvili’s supporters, including lawmakers from the UNM party, claim that Guruli, although he was not authorized, was deliberately picked for hearing of the appeal because he fell under the prosecution’s pressure and was acting upon prosecutor’s instructions. Merabishvili’s supporters, as well as his lawyers say that the entire case was deliberately referred to the court in Kutaisi because prosecution found this court more vulnerable to pressure and for that reason they wanted to sideline the Kutaisi court from adjudication of this case. They also say that if the Kutaisi City Court delivers guilty verdict, then the defense will have to appeal it to the Kutaisi Court of Appeals, which is chaired by the same judge Malkhaz Guruli.
One of the prosecutors into this case, Natia Songulashvili, said that “even if we assume” for a second that there was any procedural violation during the appeal hearing, it should not in any way become a reason for recusal of the entire court in Kutaisi. She said that the case was referred for adjudication in the Kutaisi City Court because the investigation into the case was ongoing by the Kutaisi-based district prosecutor’s office of western Georgia and hence it was legally binding to send the case to local court.
The Kutaisi Court of Appeals denied allegations by defense lawyers of Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili and said that Malkhaz Guruli became authorized to preside of their appeal upon his own decree assigning himself to the investigative collegium to handle backlog of cases, which was amassed by May in this collegium; the court said that the collegium had only one judge, who was failing to handle overload.
Prosecution will continue listing its pieces of evidence, mainly the names of several thousand witnesses it wants to summon, during a second day of the preliminary hearing, which is scheduled for September 19.
Defense lawyers said that they plan to file a motion requesting release of Merabishvili from pre-trial detention when the hearing resumes.
Merabishvili is also facing charges in connection to a separate case, which allegedly involves misappropriation of private property and embezzlement of GEL 158,000 in 2009, when he served as interior minister.
More charges, involving abuse of office, were filed against Merabishvili in June; the charges are related to Sandro Girgvliani murder case in 2006 with prosecutors accusing Merabishvili, who at the time was the interior minister, of series of premeditated actions aimed at covering up evidence in an attempt to obstruct establishment of truth into this murder case.