Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Georgia: Tbilisi Jury Trial Marks Step Forward for Justice System

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org

Georgia: Tbilisi Jury Trial Marks Step Forward for Justice System

by Giorgi Lomsadze EurasiaNet.org

In an historic first for Georgia, 12 men and women recently passed judgment in the country’s first jury trial, a grisly murder case. But the answer to whether or not jury trials will enhance the credibility of the country’s justice system remains to be seen.

The trial, held in the Tbilisi City Court, tried former policeman Revaz Demetrashvili for allegedly assisting the 1994 gang murder of three members of an ethnic Armenian family in the Georgian capital.

The case, though, has grown beyond the tragedy of one Tbilisi family, and come to be seen as a test of whether ordinary Georgians are ready to sit in dispassionate judgment of their peers. It was the first case to meet the criteria for a jury trial, as introduced in 2010.

Jam-packed with onlookers and journalists, the courtroom on November 17 was hushed in anticipation as the jurors walked in to announce a verdict of guilty. Demetrashvili now faces 14 years in prison. He maintains his innocence.

Jury trials are seen as a key tool for addressing international and domestic criticism of the professionalism and independence of Georgia’s courts. It is also portrayed as another step in the government’s campaign to show it is embracing Western-style democratic institutions.

With the massive public interest in mind, prosecutors peppered their arguments with PR-ready observations about the trial’s significance. In her opening arguments on November 11, prosecutor Natia Mogeladze described herself as “overcome with emotions, both as a prosecutor and as a mother” over the trial.

The prosecution claimed that Demetrashvili used his car and an expired police badge in 1994 to help kidnap Tbilisi resident Vazgen Minesian, who was released from captivity after his parents paid a $15,000 ransom. The government argued that, after learning of revenge threats and fearing that the Minesians could identify them, the defendant and his associates staged an armed robbery at Minesian’s house, where, along with his parents, he was shot to death while his wife and then eight-month-old daughter looked on. A sister survived a serious gunshot wound.

The defendant was implicated by three alleged past associates, who are serving separate prison terms for drug possession. In testimony, they commented that they had confessed to assisting the aggravated murder of Minesian in hopes of gaining a reduction in their current prison sentences. The two men who did the actual shooting are still wanted by police.

Describing the killings as the “genocide of the Minesian family,” Mogeladze claimed that Georgians in 1994 were afraid to tell the truth. “But now we are in a different Georgia. … People are not afraid to speak the truth anymore,” she declared in a line that defense attorney Davit Modebadze drily commented would be suitable for a newscast by Rustavi2, a pro-government television channel.

At the beginning of the trial, the judge instructed the jury of seven women and five men not to seek further information on the case on their own, and to limit their judgment only to the evidence presented in court.

But one legal observer said it was a difficult task for jurors to adhere to the judge’s instructions, given Georgian media’s aggressive coverage of the case. “The television [stations] ran prime-time reports on the case,” said Keti Khutsishvili, a legal analyst with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association. Given that jury members were not sequestered, and could watch reports far from favorable for the defendant, the news could have shaped their judgment, she suggested.

“We can say now that changes to the laws are in order to make sure that the media have certain limits when covering jury trials, and also the jury should be further limited in the way they can receive information on the case they are hearing,” Khutsishvili said. “A warning by a judge is not enough, because this case showed that jurors are susceptible to pressures from outside the courtroom.”

(The presiding judge, Nino Sandodze, asked to see the verdict form before it was read aloud, saying that she wanted to ensure that it followed regulations.)

As the jury foreman read the verdict, Demetrashvili started shaking his head. His mother, rushing out from the courthouse, called the trial a show. “Twelve jurors, twelve jurors!” she kept repeating in disappointment.

For Minesian’s survivors, though, there was a sense that justice had been finally served. “I have waited for this day for 17 years,” Vazgen Minesian’s widow, Kristina Avenisian, accompanied by her now teenaged daughter, told reporters. “Georgia is a completely different place now,” Avenisian said, thanking the jurors for their verdict.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a lawyer by background and a former justice minister, can only agree. Saakashvili was televised receiving Avenisian, her daughter and sisters-in-law after the trial to thank them for their patience during the investigation and to deliver harsh words for the defendant and his family.

Khutsishvili stressed that “all the attention” focused on the Minesian case may mean that the trial “may not be representative of how the system will work.”

“We need to wait for other cases, before we pass judgment,” she said.

Other reform watchers in Georgia were also reserving judgment until there are more cases to analyze and public opinion has been sampled. Georgia's justice system is widely perceived as being under the influence of the executive branch. Transparency International Executive Director Eka Gigauri argued that jurors, to a lesser degree, could be susceptible to the same “self-censorship” displayed by judges in “cases with political dimensions.”

“There is still a chance that the jurors will seek to avoid potential problems with the government,” Gigauri said. Alongside reforms, she continued, the political will to create a truly independent judiciary system and secure public trust in the courts is needed. "The jury system is just one element in this process," she said.

Editor's note:
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet's Tamada Tales blog.