A proposal to delay tackling of security agencies’ ‘black box’ devices in telecommunication operators’ networks for five months is meeting opposition not only from civil society and rights groups, but from some ruling GD coalition lawmakers as well.
The Parliament passed this summer package of legislative amendments setting tighter rules for the law enforcement agencies to carry out surveillance activities, including through introduction of higher standards of justification required for security agencies to obtain court warrant on surveillance, as well as through increasing authorities of the personal data protection inspector.
But legislators left key issue, involving security agencies’ unrestricted capabilities of direct access to telecommunications service providers’ networks, unaddressed.
Adopted amendments envisaged setting up of a working group to elaborate legislative proposal on how to address this issue by November 1, 2014.
The working group, uniting several lawmakers, representatives of government and civil society organizations, was established, but it failed to produce the bill and as the deadline approached, GD MP Shalva Shavgulidze tabled a proposal to extend the deadline till April 1, 2015.
The Interior Ministry is strongly against of being deprived of its ‘black box’ spy devices in telecommunications service providers’ networks, which give the security agencies unrestricted access to servers allowing them to monitor reportedly over twenty thousand mobile phone numbers simultaneously without any public oversight mechanism.
GD MP Shavgulidze says that it’s better to extend the deadline and continue discussions over this complicated issue rather than to hastily adopt new mechanism just because to meet initially set November 1 deadline.
At a hearing of parliamentary committee of legal affairs on October 28, members of the working group from civil society organizations, among them from Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Transparency International Georgia, spoke strongly against extending the deadline. Lasha Tugushi, an editor-in-chief of the daily Rezonansi, who is also a member of the working group, that the Interior Ministry’s determination to keep the status quo makes it unlikely to achieve any agreement within next six months either. But MP Shavgulidze said that “possibilities for reaching an agreement have not yet been exhausted.”
The parliamentary committee for legal affairs endorsed on October 28 to discuss extending of the deadline at a parliamentary session; but two lawmakers from the GD ruling majority – MP Zurab Abashidze from Free Democrats and MP Ani Mirotadze from National Forum voted against. Opposition lawmakers from UNN party were not present as they are boycotting committee hearings held in newly renovated Parliament building in Tbilisi and are only attending plenary session and other meetings, which are held in Parliamentâ€™s building in Kutaisi.
“Free Democrats faction will not support the bill [on deadline extension] in its current form,” MP Abashidze of the Georgian Dream-Free Democrats faction said.
Earlier on October 28 several members of the working group, representation civil society organizations, released a joint statement protesting that the proposal to extend the deadline was tabled without even being discussed in the working group.
The statement, which is addressed to the parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, says that further delay to tackle the issue will “extend existence of the system of violation of privacy rights by law enforcement agencies.”
“It is regretful that even under the new government it is difficult to make bold political decisions and the authorities failed to give up a tool, which has been used for mass violation of human rights,” reads the statement.
Public Defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, has also condemned the proposal to extend the deadline and said that the Parliament had enough time to develop the bill before November 1.
Parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, who is currently visiting Belgium, said: “I can understand that we want it faster than it is and in general it’s not good when deadline is being extended, but I want to ask everyone to have patience in order to bring it to the end.”
Also on October 28, President Giorgi Margvelashvili met MP Shavgulidze and GD MP from the Republican Party, Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs.
The President, who wields veto power, previously also met those civil society representatives who are advocating for depriving the Interior Ministry its direct access to telecom operators’ servers.
President’s parliamentary secretary, Giorgi Kverenchkhiladze, said that the President asked on October 3 for a meeting with the Interior Ministry representatives to hear their position on the issue, but there has not yet been a response from the ministry.
President Margvelashvili declined to respond when asked if he would veto extension of the deadline; he told the Georgian Public Broadcaster on October 28 that it would be inappropriate to speak about it when the bill is not yet even passed by the Parliament.