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UN Arbitrary Detention Working Group’s preliminary findings in Georgia

By Mzia Kupunia
Monday, June 27
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Georgia on June 15-24, made a statement upon conclusion of its mission to Georgia. In its preliminary findings statement the group focused on several problems, including an increase of punishment for administrative offences, a high number of prisoners, plea bargain procedures, low number of acquittals and detentions during the recent protests in Tbilisi.

Speaking at the concluding press conference in Tbilisi, the head of the working group, El Hadji Malick Sow said the group visited detention facilities in Tbilisi, Batumi and Kutaisi, met the government authorities and the representatives of NGOs in Georgia.

“Georgia has one of the highest prison populations,” the statement of the working group reads “ the information we received support the notion that detention and arrest are used in an overwhelming majority of cases that go through the courts,” it continues. Among problematic issues, the UN working group listed the increase of the maximum punishment for administrative offences to 90 days.

The members of the Working Group focused on the plea bargain issue in light of the role and independence of the judiciary in this process. “The fact that about 90% of cases that go through the court resort to plea bargain arrangements with minimal intervention from judges is alarming” the Chair-Rapporteur of the Group El Hadji Malick Sow said “The principle of equality of arms between the prosecution and defence is a fundamental pre-requisite of a fair trial. Various parties interviewed, including lawyers, held the view that judgments often favour the prosecution over the defence,” he added.

The estimated 0.1 percent acquittal rate support the assertion that majority of cases are in favour of the prosecution, according to the UN Working Group statement. “The extreme low rate of acquittal in Georgia means that a majority of defendants who go through regular procedures often find themselves in detention”, Sow said “Prisoners that were interviewed strongly believed that a plea bargain was their only option as there would be minimal chances of getting an acquittal. Prisoners voiced their lack of trust in the judicial system fearing that if they did not concede to a guilty plea, they would end up with an excessively harsh sentence,” he noted, adding that the lack of use of bail and the strict zero tolerance policy of the Government contributed to Georgia having one of the world’s largest prison population. He suggested that alternative measures of detention must be used, “particularly in cases where it is clearly justifiable to do so.”

The issue of illegal entry of foreigners to Georgia has also been considered by the Working Group during the visit, as the illegal crossing of borders is penalised by the law, the statement reads. “The detention for illegal border crossing, coupled with harsh sentencing, raises again the issue of proportionality and how this needs to be carefully addressed and remedied by the government,” the working group said in its statement.

As for May 26 detentions, the Working Group said in its statement that the Group “urges the government to ensure the rigorous protection of the rights for its citizens” regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the right to freedom of expression.

The Working group will present a final report of their visit to Georgia in spring 2012.