Parliament passed on Thursday with 71 votes to 25 a controversial government-proposed bill postponing once again introduction of a new rule that would replace current practice of compelled witness statements with questioning of witnesses only before court.
The proposal, which was strongly opposed by lawmakers from the UNM parliamentary minority group and condemned by rights groups, was passed after two hours of heated debates.
A person is now legally obliged to appear before law enforcement agencies and prosecutors if summoned as a witness in the process of investigation even before the case goes to court for a trial. If a person, summoned by the law enforcement authority as a witness, refuses to appear before investigator, the latter can apply coercive measure upon court’s order to bring him or her for questioning. The practice has long been criticized by human rights groups, who argue that it gives upper hand to prosecution, creating possibility for undue pressure on witnesses to produce statement favorable for the prosecution.
Georgia's current criminal procedure code, which introduced an adversarial criminal process, was adopted in 2009 and it came into force in October 2010. But the code had one provision – article 332 – which envisaged keeping old rule of witness questioning from the previous code till October, 2012; this rule compels a witness to appear before investigators and answer their questions at the stage of investigation before the case goes to the court for a trial.
This deadline was extended for number of times since then – at first by the previous authorities when UNM was in power and then again by GD ruling coalition.
In May, 2012 the previous Parliament set December 1, 2013 as the new date for enforcement of new rule of questioning witnesses – allowing the process to take place only before court. In January, 2013 the sitting Parliament moved the date forward to September, 2013, but the same Parliament in July postponed the date till December 31, 2013. At the time the government and GD ruling majority cited that more time was needed to properly prepare for the new system, including for training law enforcement officers.
On December 20, eleven days before enforcement of the new rule, the government submitted to the Parliament a bill offering postponement of introduction of the rule for two years, till December 31, 2015.
Deputy Interior Minister, Levan Izoria, who presented the bill before lawmakers, said on December 26 that new rule is “flawed” and its introduction would pose “threat” to effective fight against crime.
UNM lawmakers argued that primary reason why the government wanted to delay enforcement of the rule was because of ongoing investigations into former government officials. “You are giving blank check to the procuracy… to destroy the political opposition,” UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili told GD parliamentary majority group.
Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, uniting over thirty non-governmental and media organizations, has called on the Parliament not to adopt the proposal, saying that it would have negative effect on development of justice system in the country and keep prosecution’s upper hand vis-à-vis defense during a criminal process.
Discussion of the bill by lawmakers on December 26 was briefly interrupted when activists from several human rights and legal advocacy groups staged a protest inside the chamber by flying banners reading: “Defend the Right of Defense”; “Human Rights cannon Wait for Two Years”; “Say No to Postponement.” The protest was greeted with applause from UNM lawmakers. Parliament marshals, overseeing rule and order in the chamber, immediately removed banners.
GD lawmaker, Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said during the debates that he too was initially against of government’s proposal to delay enforcement of the new rule. He, however, said that he changed his mind after listening to arguments laid out by deputy interior minister, Levan Izoria. MP Khmaladze said that existing rule of questioning witnesses “should be changed”, but not in a way that would “paralyze” law enforcement agencies.