US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week released a statement on the public designations of judges Mikheil Chinchaladze, Levan Murusidze, Irakli Shengelia and Valerian Tsertsvadze.
According to the statement, the above individuals had abused their positions.
“The US Department of State is publicly designating Mikheil Chinchaladze, Levan Murusidze, Irakli Shengelia, and Valerian Tsertsvadze under Section 7031(c) visa restriction authorities, due to their involvement in significant corruption.
“These individuals abused their positions as court Chairmen and members of Georgia’s High Council of Justice, undermining the rule of law and the public’s faith in Georgia’s judicial system.
“The United States continues to stand with all Georgians in support of democracy and the rule of law and will continue to promote accountability for those who abuse public power for personal gain. We stand with all judges who have the integrity and courage to act impartially and independently.
“Officials designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023 (Div. K, P.L. 117-328) (“Section 7031(c)”) and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States,” reads the statement.
The US Embassy in Georgia made additional clarifications, noting that these are visa designations that prevent these individuals (and their immediate family members) from entering the US based on credible information that those identified are involved in significant corruption.
“Those designated and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States. There is no time limit on these designations. Section 7031(c) does authorize waivers of, and exceptions that may permit an individual to travel under certain circumstances.
“The Secretary of State has credible information that the individuals designated were involved in significant corruption related to their current and former judicial positions. Their corruption undermined rule of law and democratic processes in Georgia.
“Information is gathered from a variety of sources, including open sources. Credible information was obtained that the judges abused their public positions by participating in corrupt activity that undermined judicial and public processes, offered benefits to and/or coerced judges to decide cases in favor of political allies, and manipulated judicial appointments to their benefit.
“The information we have gathered meets the required standards under US law to deny them entry to the United States. It is up to the authorities in Georgia to investigate corruption in its own country,” reads the information released by the Embassy.
US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan responded personally by saying: “Their actions undercut judicial and public processes by offering benefits to or coercing judges to decide cases in favor of political allies and manipulating judicial appointments to their benefit.”
Degnan added that the rule of law requires a legal system where cases are decided fairly and impartially, based on facts, evidence and law, not because of a late night phone call, not because of a bribe, not because of intimidation or other pressure. Every Georgian citizen deserves justice, rule of law and the right to a fair and independent judicial process, regardless of his or her wealth, or family or political connections.
“Their corruption undermined rule of law and democratic processes, damaging the Georgian public’s faith in the independence of one of the most important democratic institutions,” she said.
“At last week’s summit for democracy, President Biden reaffirmed the US’ strong commitment to fighting corruption and strengthening rule of law. Over 100 countries, including Georgia, join President Biden in endorsing this commitment because we all understand that rule of law is about more than words. It’s about justice and justice is the main principle upholding freedom and democracy.
“These designations reflect the importance the United States places on countering corruption. Corruption and judicial interference obstruct Georgia’s European integration. The United States continues to support Georgia and its citizens in your European aspirations. This action was taken with achieving that goal in mind. These designations also demonstrate our continued support to the hardworking, capable, honest and professional judges throughout Georgia, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. They should be allowed to do their jobs and administer the law free of pressure, intimidation and interference.
“For years, the United States has been urging the Government to make meaningful reforms within the judiciary, and we applaud the progress made over the years, often with US support.
“But as many have acknowledged, including the Government, there is more work to be done to ensure that Georgia citizens have the strong judicial institution that you deserve.
“These judicial reforms are in Georgia’s interest, and they are necessary for Georgia to achieve the Euro-Atlantic future Georgians have long pursued, to win the fight against corruption, to achieve the stable, prosperous Euro Atlantic future the people of Georgia have chosen. Georgia needs a truly impartial, independent judiciary.
“The designations announced against four corrupt individuals demonstrate the United States’ firm commitment to combat corruption and to help the people of Georgia succeed in building the democratic society you so clearly want and deserve”, said the Ambassador.
Secretary Blinken wrote on Twitter that they stand with Georgia’s government, and people in their efforts to advance transparency & democratic governance.
“I designated four Georgian former and current officials for significant corruption, making them ineligible to enter the United States. We stand with the government and people of Georgia in their efforts to advance transparency and democratic governance,” US Secretary Tweeted.
Senator Jim Risch responded to the occasion, noting that the “Designations are long-overdue, but very welcome. I will continue to support the desires of the Georgian people to move to a more democratic and transparent future,” he tweeted.
Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson at the US Department of State noted that they have reliable information that these persons were involved in significant corruption.
“Over the past 30 years, we have become strategic partners, working together on a shared vision for Georgia to fully integrate into the Euro-Atlantic family,” Patel said. “We have reliable information that these individuals have been involved in significant corruption related to their current and former judicial positions. This corruption undermined the rule of law in Georgia and undermined democratic processes. It damaged public trust in democratic institutions and officials of Georgia.”
Response from the judges and ruling party
Foreign Minister of Georgia, Ilia Darchiashvili, sent a letter to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noting the decision of the US State Department to designate judges was made public without any evidence, and as such is “completely incompetent and irresponsible.”
Georgia Today offers the letter unchanged:
“Dear Mr. Secretary, on behalf of the people and the Government of Georgia, I would like to extend my highest considerations and assurances of our commitment to the strategic partnership between Georgia and the United States of America. We have been informed that the US Department of State took a decision to publicly designate three incumbent and one former judge of the independent Georgian judiciary.
“Firstly, I would like to remind you of the most dire legacy inherited by the “Georgian Dream” in the judiciary in 2012 when it assumed power. The reality on the ground was indeed grave: the court system had effectively been incorporated into the prosecution as its sub-division, transforming it into another link in the repressive machine of the authoritarian regime in place at the time; over 99% of cases heard ended in convictions; more than 300 thousand citizens were tried in court; elite corruption was permeating the judiciary as well as other spheres, the authorities were committing systemic crime. Under the conditions of an unjust and repressive judiciary the prison population swelled to 25 thousand, while the practice of systemic torture and inhumane treatment towards those incarcerated became rampant. As a result, mortality rate among the incarcerated reached the unprecedented high levels. After the “Georgian Dream” assumed power, the number of prisoners decreased two and a half times. The mortality rate plummeted tenfold. Additionally, after assumption of power by the “Georgian Dream”, pre-trial detentions decreased threefold, administrative convictions decreased threefold, the number of accepted motions for investigative actions halved, bail rulings decreased 20-fold, number of fines issued decreased fivefold, etc.
“Under the previous government and its court system the Georgian people were unable to find justice within the state, having to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. During the period from 2004-2012 the Strasburg Court received 5 416 applications from Georgia. As a comparison, during the period from 2013-2022 the same indicator decreased to 1 132 cases. From 2009-2012 the European Court heard approximately 4 000 applications against Georgia. As of 2023 only 147 such cases are pending, which is the best indicator since Georgia has become the member of the Council of Europe. It is noteworthy, that under the previous administration the key figures responsible for creation and construction of a criminal judiciary, Mikheil Saakashvili and Zurab Adeishvili, have not been sanctioned by any state. Furthermore, regrettably, they enjoyed and still enjoy guarantees of personal immunity.
“The stark drop in the number of appeals to the Strasburg court, as well as the aforementioned statistical data, clearly indicate that systemic problems were eradicated in Georgian judiciary after 2012, which is the direct result of the political will, as well as the four waves of judiciary reforms implemented by the “Georgian Dream”. Georgian citizens are now able to effectively protect their rights within the Georgian state. The judiciary has become functional and today it provides with the opportunity to effectively defend one’s rights.
“The government had repeatedly appealed to critics of Georgia’s current judicial system to identify specific court cases that they believe have been ruled unfairly. However, critics have so far failed to present any evidence of such rulings. A striking example of bias by the critics of the judicial system is the decision of the Strasbourg Court in the case of the “Rustavi 2” TV channel. The ruling states that, on the contrary, Nika Gvaramia, the then general director of “Rustavi 2”, exerted pressure on the court. The ruling notes, that “groundless attacks in the media perpetrated by the director general of “Rustavi 2” against the judge can be regarded as an unlawful attempt to influence the decision of the court, and these attacks in general can contribute to undermining the authority of the judiciary”. Let us remind you, that representatives of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations, opposition-owned media outlets, the former president, the former public defender, as well as individual representatives of the diplomatic corps actively participated in an attempt to damage the reputation of the court in connection with the “Rustavi 2” case.
“The Georgian court is perceived as one of the most advanced one by the citizens of Georgia and by international research. According to the “IPSOS FRANCE” survey (“Assessment of Judicial Reforms in Georgia”), 55% of the population of Georgia think that the court is fair, 52% express trust in the court, and 51% think that the court is independent. Because of the government’s ten-year work and implemented reforms, Georgia ranks high in international rankings. In the 2022 index of the rule of law of the “World Justice Project”, Georgia ranks number one in the Eastern European and Central Asian region. According to the Corruption Perception Index of 2022, Georgia is the leader in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, and for the first time in the history of the index, Georgia is among the top 20 countries in Europe and ahead of 11 EU member states.
“At the same time, work on judicial reform continues with the Venice Commission to further strengthen the independence and transparency of the judiciary and to make the legislation even more complete.
“Therefore, taking into consideration the existing reality, the decision of the US State Department to designate judges, which was made public lacking any evidence, is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable. We express hope that the State Department will either provide relevant evidence or reconsiders its decision. Otherwise, the Georgian state and the Georgian people will perceive this as the pressure exerted on the independent judiciary of a sovereign state and as gross interference in its activities, which will be deemed detrimental to the long-standing friendly relations between Georgia and the USA.”
The Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Garibashvili, declared full support to every judge.
“As a Head of Government and ruling party official, I declare full support to every judge. The court of law has become independent and free from internal and foreign country interventions during our governance. Of course, no intervention and no influence on judges is acceptable. It is absolutely unacceptable to me, to us all, especially when referring to a sovereign court and judges of a sovereign country. I also reassured our honorable judges of our full support. We will do our utmost to have the independence and freedom of the judiciary protected from any interference and pressure. It is our declared policy and main goal that we have strived for since our team came to power. Everyone is well aware that we carried out fundamental reforms in the judiciary over the past 10 years to make the court of law the way it is today – independent and free. No interference is acceptable in a sovereign court of a sovereign country, and we should not let it happen, be that internal, from the government or any other wing, or external – coming from other countries. I wish to reaffirm judges of our support,” stated Garibashvili.
Lifetime Judge of the Court of Appeals, Levan Murusidze, who along with 3 other judges, was sanctioned by the US said that the US Embassy has hidden an attempt to hijack the judiciary.
He noted that the goal of the sanctions was to cause problems in the judicial system so that there would be chaos, and the judicial system would be subordinated to the American Embassy.
“The judiciary is being hijacked by accusations of corruption for which there is no evidence. The Ambassador said that justice is not night calls and bribes. I don’t know what to say, if the Ambassador knows that I make calls at night, it means they eavesdrop on me. No evidence can be presented that corruption takes place. The US Embassy has been making a hidden attempt for years to seize the judiciary. Sanctions on me or not, it is important that Georgia does not lose its sovereignty, and the US Embassy does not seize the judicial system,” Murusidze said.
“I am not scared. I have lived an honest life, I have not broken the law, and if now they won’t let us into the US or EU, I will survive, like my grandfather, who has never been there,” he noted.
The leader of Strategy Builder, Giorgi Vashadze, spoke about the imposition of sanctions on the Georgian judges, claiming that Georgian Dream has “lost any moral basis to call itself the government of Georgia.”
Vashadze pointed out that the West saw very clearly that the Georgian people not only want the European Union and NATO, but are ready to fight for it, which was demonstrated on March 7-9.
“This is only the beginning. I would like to first of all to appeal to Bidzina Ivanishvili – stop falsifying the will of the people, Georgian Dream has lost any moral basis to call itself the Government of Georgia. The USA and the European Union stand by us,” he said.
Gakharia, the leader of the For Georgia party, said the US decision is a clear message that responsibilities will be personalized.
“Sanctioning of Georgian judges by US is a clear signal that responsibilities will be personalized for everyone who undermines Georgian democracy and rule of law. Now, Ivanishvili must come out and take his personal responsibility!” the former PM tweeted.
Compiled by Ketevan Shkirtladze