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Chamber faces international criticism over political questioning

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Monday, March 19
United States Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, and Amnesty International have both criticized the recent actions of the Chamber of Control's monitoring department.

Amnesty International commented on March 16 that the “widespread summoning” of opposition activists and supporters by authorities “to answer questions relating to their political inclinations and activities creates a chilling effect and risks violating the rights to freedom of expression and association.” The organization made two special appeals, calling on Georgian officials to "ensure that investigations carried out by the Chamber of Control are conducted in accordance with the law and international human rights standards", and that both the Chamber and the relevant government authorities "ensure that the powers conferred on the Chamber to question individuals are used only for the purposes and within the limits of law [and that] the questioning is carried out with full respect of the human rights and the persons called for questioning have unimpeded access to representation by a lawyer of their choice".

Ambassador Bass, meanwhile, said he is “concerned about the controversy surrounding the Chamber of Control's recent activities. The lack of clear guidelines regarding its work to implement campaign finance legislation will not increase public confidence in this institution or in a competitive campaign environmen".

Majority representative Vakhtang Balavadze responded to Bass's statement, noting the American lacks detailed information regarding the Chamber's activities. Opposition members, meanwhile, welcomed the diplomat's comments.

Political analyst Archil Gegeshidze believes that Bass would not have made such a comment if he was not informed. "It is a sign that the United States is already observing the process. Georgian authorities should take such statements into consideration; otherwise there will be other statements with a different tone and from a different level".

Fellow analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze considers Bass’s statement to be a bit belated. "It would have been better if the Ambassador had commented earlier. As the current Georgian authorities recognize his position, the process [of questioning] would have been softened".

Before the international community made these statements, local NGOs and civil society representatives launched a wide-ranging campaign in which they protested the activities of the Chamber, calling them illegal and a violation of the Constitution.

The Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) believes that even if the individuals questioned by the Chamber were summoned as witnesses, due to the ambiguity of their notices, the specific facts that they were expected to testify about would have been unclear to them. As information obtained by GYLA lawyers has revealed, the repeated questioning of certain persons indicate that questions were vague. Furthermore, information requested from individuals frequently violated their right to privacy.

However, GYLA believes that the cases do not contain any signs of a criminal offence. They state that the recent activities of the Chamber of Control and the Ministry of Internal Affairs involve wrongful application of relevant legislation. This reinforces suspicions that these activities fall well beyond the work of inspecting party finances, increasingly resembling the prosecution of people on political grounds.

This weekend, the Law on Political Unions in Georgia, which includes those changes regarding the obligations of the Chamber, was on the agenda of the 90th plenary session of the European Council Venice Commission. Head of Georgia's Constitution Court, Giorgi Papuashvili, participated in the session. In addition, Georgian non-governmental organizations sent along their own proposed changes to the law, and are waiting for assessments from the Commission.

Regarding this meeting, head of GYLA Tamar Chugoshvili noted that it is unlikely that the Commission will produce recommendations. "It is very important to mention that by using the name of the Venice Commission, in reality, the project was made worse. In reality, their recommendations have not been [properly enacted] and I hope that it will be noted by the Commission".

According to the head of the Chamber of Control, Levan Bezhashvili, the aim of the operation is to investigate possible irregularities in the funding of political parties by comparing the financial declarations submitted by parties against actual spending in the regions. As of this writing, only individuals linked to the popular opposition movement Georgian Dream, a coalition that unites several opposition parties, have been summoned for questioning.

Under the Law on Political Unions of Citizens, the Chamber is authorised to “request information related to the finances of the political parties from the political parties, administrative authorities and commercial banks.” It may also “request information about the origin of transferred and received property” from “persons with declared political and electoral goals and objectives”, or persons related to them.