Georgia: more needs to be done to uphold the credibility of the justice system

Visit to Georgia
headline Tbilisi, Georgia 20/04/2011
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At the end of a four-day visit to Georgia focusing on human rights in the justice system, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg presented his preliminary observations at a press conference at the Council of Europe Office in Tbilisi.

"Over an extended period, I have been receiving reports from different sources and have been addressed directly by many individuals who have raised a number of issues concerning the administration of justice in Georgia. I therefore decided to look into the matter by visiting the country and holding discussions with the authorities, including the judiciary, as well as some of the persons who brought their cases to my attention," said the Commissioner.

"The right to a fair trial is a basic human right. People charged with crimes should benefit from the presumption of innocence, have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence. The right to an adversarial trial and equality of arms are established principles, reflected in the case-law European Court of Human Rights," the Commissioner emphasised.

The Commissioner noted the reforms undertaken in the area of criminal justice, including the introduction of a new Code of Criminal Procedure which entered into force in October last year. Some progress has been reported, in particular, in the area of juvenile justice. While steps have been taken to address overcrowding in prisons, concerns remain about the very low rates of acquittals and the policy of imposing severe sentences for relatively minor crimes. The authorities informed the Commissioner that this policy would be reviewed in the context of reform of the Criminal Code.

The system of plea-bargaining needs to be carefully assessed, said the Commissioner. While observers have agreed that it has had the positive effect on overall efficiency and proven effective in the fight against corruption, many have raised questions about fairness and the broad authority the system gives to prosecutors, leaving defendants with little choice but to accept a negotiated plea largely at the prosecutor's terms. During the visit, the authorities expressed willingness to tackle the deficiencies in the system, starting from establishing more transparent procedures.

While there has been an improvement in recent public perceptions about the judiciary, more needs to be done to build further public trust in the administration of justice and to eliminate practices which create an impression that justice has in some cases been meted out in a selective manner. For example, the Public Defender has mentioned inadequate reasoning of court decisions. Moreover, the Commissioner found that progress has been limited in pursuing cases involving misconduct by law enforcement officials. Resolute action against impunity will do much to promote greater trust in the system.

"A lack of public trust in the rule of law can be very damaging to a democracy," said the Commissioner; "Therefore, it is very important to uphold the credibility of the justice system and to pay attention to public perceptions about its fairness and effectiveness.