Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili announced late on June 22 that she pardoned Nika Gvaramia, a prominent pro-opposition journalist imprisoned on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
The move follows long-running local and international advocacy for the release of the founder of the fiercely anti-government TV station Mtavari Arkhi, who has spent more than a year in jail. And the decision is expected to improve Georgia's chances of becoming an EU candidate country on its second try later this year.
The president said she made the decision after the Supreme Court on June 19 refused to consider an appeal and upheld Gvaramia's sentence, thus "exhausting all legal steps" that could have brought about his release.
"I am not going to give any explanation for this decision as it is my discretional right," the president said, reiterating her earlier remarks that she would not allow her decision to be influenced by pressure from any side.
Gvaramia, one of the most prominent anti-government voices in Georgia, had held various offices under the previous authorities, in power from 2004 to 2012. He was jailed in May last year just as Georgia was awaiting Brussels' decision on its bid for EU candidate status.
The first-instance court sentenced him then to three and a half years in prison on abuse of power charges. The journalist was convicted for striking a commercial deal to get an expensive car for the company only to use it for personal purposes in 2019 when he was managing another station, Rustavi 2 TV. He was also found guilty and fined for inflicting financial losses on the same channel in 2015 by lowering ad prices (as per Georgian law, the fine was waived as he faced more severe punishment).
Gvaramia co-founded Mtavari Artkhi after the previously pro-opposition Rustavi 2 TV changed ownership following a lengthy and dramatic legal saga. While he was known as one of the most outspoken and controversial figures in Georgia's heavily polarized media environment, his charges were widely seen - including by many of his own critics - as being trumped up.
Georgia's Western allies repeatedly expressed repeated concern over his jailing and applied mounting pressure for his release.
Gvaramia left the prison a few hours after the president's announcement.
"To tell you the truth, I did not expect to be released," he told reporters as he was leaving the prison facility in the town of Rustavi. Zourabichvili "definitely did not do it for me, she did it for her own country, whose president she is. I think this indeed adds to her integrity."
Gvaramia also used the occasion to apologize for various offensive remarks he made about Zourabichvili during his journalistic career. Those remarks were widely circulated by pro-government media after the president's announcement.
He also called on the president to also pardon his close friend and ally, jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Prior to going to jail himself, Gvaramia served as one of Saakashvili's lawyers. But while keeping Gvaramia's prospects open over the past few months, Zourabichvili has been categorical in ruling out pardoning the ex-president.
Gvaramia's sentence had been widely seen as a hindrance to Georgia's chances to become an EU membership candidate. Last year, Tbilisi failed to get the status on the first attempt and was told to come back after addressing 12 reform priorities.
Only hours before Zourabichvili's announcement, the EU delivered an oral update on Georgia's progress.
According to Olivér Várhelyi, the EU's neighborhood and enlargement commissioner, three out of twelve priorities had been completely addressed, seven saw "some progress", and there was "limited progress" on one more priority. It was found that the country had achieved no progress at all in the area of "media pluralism and standards for criminal procedures against media owners."
Gvaramia's release will likely be considered as at least partially addressing that concern.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, welcomed Zourabichvili's decision, describing it as "an essential step towards depolarization in Georgia."
The decision also marks another in a series of attempts by a figurehead president to use her limited powers to boost Georgia's EU chances as its government pursues increasingly illiberal policies. Those attempts have boosted her popularity, including among her earlier critics.
The ruling Georgian Dream party leaders, who have long opposed the idea of Gvaramia's pardoning, attributed the president's decision to the outside pressure.
"We hoped that the president would withstand the pressure that was exerted on her to pardon him," Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili told reporters on June 23. "I think that the fact that she did not name the motive for her decision ultimately also showed that this decision has no real motive."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.