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As Georgia reforms, judiciary under scrutiny

The treason verdict of opposition leader Maia Topuria, now under appeal, is seen as a test of the ex-Soviet republic's efforts to improve its courts.

By Daria VaismanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2007

Tbilisi, Georgia

Since being arrested last year for plotting to overthrow the government, Maia Topuria and 11 other Georgian opposition members were tried in a closed courtroom for high treason. Accused of recruiting paid demonstrators to help stage a violent takeover of parliament, they were found guilty on Aug. 24.

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Ms. Topuria, the niece of Igor Giorgadze – a Georgian living in Russia who is wanted on charges of attempting to assassinate then-president Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995 – and a leader of his party was sentenced to 8-1/2 years.

The case has played out against a backdrop of simmering tensions between a resurgent Russia and Georgia, with Topuria and her fellow defendants widely despised at home. But legal and human rights experts see the case, now under appeal, as a test of judicial reform in one of the most promising former Soviet states.

"Georgia has made strides that you simply won't find in other countries," says Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, a New York-based watchdog group. "But the judiciary stands as an exception that is a thorn in the side of the country's larger reform ambitions," he says.

Topuria's defense team alleges foul play by the prosecution, which denies such charges. Two key witness statements had nearly identical phrasing, the defense says, and surveillance footage shows a witness at work at the same time that the prosecution said he was giving his witness statement in a closed court.

Larry Barcella, one of the defense lawyers, who has experience in trials dealing with state secrets, adds that the court's reason for closing the case – protection of state secrets – was groundless. "During the entire trial, there was never one scrap of evidence presented that could be considered a state secret," says Mr. Barcella.

The prosecution wrote in a statement that the defendants' testimonies were "invented for the purpose of evading the responsibility" awaiting them and said the testimonies were "irrelevant" to the case.

When Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili took over in 2004, he used a mixture of legislation and extended executive control to try to reform numerous corrupt sectors. But critics worry that those same methods, now applied to the judicial system, have weakened the country's checks and balances.

"We have a huge problem with the independence of the judiciary," says Giorgi Chkheidze, head of Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a legal watchdog group based in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. "It's a crisis situation," he says.

A 2006 Freedom House report stated that the judiciary "rarely makes decisions that run counter to the will of the executive." Of almost 17,000 individuals taken to court last year, only 37 were acquitted – a conviction rate of nearly 99.8 percent. By comparison, the 2006 bench conviction rate in the US was 64 percent, according to the Administrative Office of the US Courts.