Headquarters of Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 TV. This private television station aired extracts from wiretapped recordings of high-ranking officials few days after the channel claimed offices of its top executives were under illegal surveillance by the authorities. Senior figures from the ruling GD coalition accuse Rustavi 2 TV of acting in concert with opposition UNM party to “discredit state institutions” and damage country’s reputation. Photo: Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge
UNM opposition party has called for setting up of a parliamentary investigative commission to look into illegal surveillance practice, which it said had been exposed by Rustavi 2 TV’s airing of wiretapped recordings of phone calls of current and former high-ranking officials.
Some senior lawmakers and officials from the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group, however, responded by pointing the finger at UNM, suggesting that recordings could have been made by former government officials with eavesdropping devices, which the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office claims were procured by the previous leadership of security agencies and are now "lost".
Rustavi 2 TV aired late on May 10 portions from what appear to be wiretaps of phone conversations of current and former high-ranking officials, lawmakers and businessmen, which the TV channel said was provided by an anonymous source and which prove that practice of illegal wiretapping is continuing under the current authorities as well.
Recordings, most of them dating from 2013, feature phone conversations between, among others, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili and then secretary of National Security Council Giga Bokeria; Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Bokeria; Usupashvili and then Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava; a senior Georgian Dream (GD) lawmaker Davit Saganelidze and businessmen Roman Pipia; GD MP Gela Samkharauli and businessman Mamia Sanadiradze. Most of those figures, who feature in the recordings, have confirmed authenticity of those conversations.
Prosecutor’s office said on May 11 that it opened criminal investigation into “illegal obtaining and dissemination of recordings of private communication.”
UNM opposition party said in a statement on May 11 that recently emerged wiretapped recordings represent “an incontrovertible evidence of practice of total surveillance and eavesdropping.”
“We call on the Georgian parliament speaker to create a special parliamentary investigative commission at least now when it has been confirmed that… he too is being eavesdropped,” UNM MP Nugzar Tsiklauri said in a statement on behalf of his party on May 11.
UNM said that this commission should include not only lawmakers, but also civil society and media representatives.
The opposition party has also called on President Giorgi Margvelashvili to convene the National Security Council to discuss this issue as it also concerns matters related to country security.
UNM MP Sergo Ratiani said on May 11 that PM Irakli Garibashvili should “bear political responsibility” over the illegal surveillance as those wiretapped recordings were made in a period when Garibashvili held the Interior Minister’s post.
On the evening of May 10, few hours before the recordings were broadcast by Rustavi 2 TV, prosecutor’s office, as well as Deputy Interior Minister Levan Izoria, said that in 2010-2011 the Interior Ministry purchased through classified expenditures “portable avesdropping devices”, which have not be formally registered and are now deemed “lost”.
There is “a high probability” that those devices are now under possession of persons, who are affiliated with the previous authorities, prosecutor’s office said, adding that it is now investigating the case. At the time of making this statement it was already known that Rustavi 2 TV was planning to air wiretapped recordings.
Echoing statement of the prosecutor’s office, Energy Minister, Kakha Kaladze, who is a secretary general of Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG), a leading party in GD ruling coalition, said on May 11: “I have a reasonable suspicion that it [wiretapping of officials] was done by the United National Movement.”
MP Davit Saganelidze, who is the leader of GD majority group in the Parliament and who is one of those whose phone conversation was tapped, also pointed the finger at the previous authorities. He also said: “I would not have been part of this team if those recordings had been made by the current government.”
On May 11 GDDG released a written statement blaming Rustavi 2 TV and UNM of acting in concert to “discredit state institutions” and damage country’s reputation ahead of planned signing of the Association Agreement with the EU.
“The United National Movement does not give up fighting with the dirtiest methods and tries to blackmail the entire society,” GDDG said in its statement.
“Rustavi 2 TV also shares its responsibility for participating in it together with [UNM].”
“This is an attempt to stain the reputation of the country and to discredit the state institutions on the one hand, and on the other hand they are trying to cause cracks within the Georgian Dream ahead of the local elections,” GDDG said.
It said that “such an agony” of the UNM is “understandable” as the party will “finally loose power” on local level, where it still has it, as a result of municipal elections on June 15.
Echoing claims by the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office that “large number” of portable eavesdropping devices has been “lost” from the Interior Ministry, GDDG said that “many individuals” with possession of these devices are capable of “making such wiretapped recordings.”
“This is part of a well-planned scenario and series of provocations, which have been deliberately plotted in the pre-election period and ahead of signing of the Association Agreement with the EU. This is UNM’s response to successful foreign policy and internal reforms,” reads the statement, which also expresses confidence that the law enforcement agencies will identify those who are in possession of “lost” eavesdropping devices and who are behind illegal wiretapping.
“A bill has been drafted, which will put an end once and for all to the possibility of illegal eavesdropping; the bill will be passed in the nearest future and no one will be able to speculate over this issue any more,” it said.
The bill in question, however, remains a source of controversy. While large group of human rights and watchdog organizations are pushing for a draft that provides for strict regulations on government’s surveillance capabilities, the Interior Ministry wants to remove from the bill those clauses that would significantly restrict or even put an end to the capability that it now has in a form of unrestricted, direct access to communication operator companies’ networks.
Asked which version he thinks is right – the official one, suggesting that former government members are behind the leaked wiretapped recordings or another one, according to which the current authorities are continuing illegal surveillance, President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in an interview with Imedi TV on Sunday: “I will not go into [details] of versions.”
“What I'd like to point out is that I expect two positive things from this process: the first one is that rejection of such horrible and illegal acts by the society will be further increased and second – improvement of legislation in this regard.”