A high-court decision in Georgia this week ended more than a year’s worth of pre-trial detention for a major opposition figure, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, but a subsequent trial judgement has sent him back to prison for a four-and-a-half-year-long stretch.
The string of events already has revived a longstanding debate about whether the rule of law does indeed outweigh politics in Georgia.
Ugulava, 40, was released late on September 17 to a hero’s welcome from fellow members of the United National Movement (UNM), former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the largest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The day before, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, ruled that the constitution does not allow a defendant to be kept in detention for over nine months.
Many lawyers hailed the decision as “historic” for declaring unconstitutional a criminal law provision that allowed pre-trial detention to be extended beyond nine months if new charges are brought.
Ironically, that “unconstitutional” measure was voted into law by Ugulava’s own UNM party back in 2010.
But Ugalava’s time out of jail proved brief. Late on September 18, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced the ex-mayor, once one of the country’s most powerful political figures, to 4.5 years in prison for the alleged misspending of public funds. He was acquitted on money-laundering charges.
Chanting “Gigi, Gigi!,” supporters gathered outside the court as the sentence was read, and Ugalava, who refused to attend the sentencing, addressed the crowd. UNM members said that they expected such a sentence, given the animosity of ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream’s founder, toward Ugulava, once seen as ex-President Saakashvili’s political heir, and other opposition members.
Critics see Ivanishvili as the real power behind the Georgian government.
The Constitutional Court ruling already came as a slap in the face for the Georgian Dream, which tells voters it has brought to justice UNM members for alleged wrongdoings during the party’s 2004-2012 rule.
The court, though, did not have an easy time of it. One of the nine Constitutional Court justices, Merab Turava, appointed under the Georgian Dream, refused to sign off on the decision to release Ugalava from pre-trial detention, citing both health problems and an alleged lack of time to review the case.
In a subsequent statement, civil-rights watchdogs expressed concern that Justice Turava “could not provide a cogent explanation for failing to fullfil his duty." *
Constitutional Court Chairperson Giorgi Papuashvili, a Saakashvili appointee, has claimed that protesters have harassed the justices for their ruling, and that he has brought the matter to the interior ministry’s attention.
Parliamentarians from the Georgian Dream, in turn, charged that the court justices are pals with Saakashvili, under whose administration all of the justices except Turava were appointed.
As the 2016 parliamentary campaign season draws closer, look for these debates to only intensify.
*The Open Society Foundation Georgia was among the signatories. EurasiaNet.org functions under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations network.