Georgia falters on legal reforms

Established Georgian lawyers are challenging efforts to bring US-style reforms to the legal system.

Among former Soviet republics undergoing Western legal reform, Georgia has long been a star student, winning extensive financial aid from the West. But now the star pupil is faltering.

The latest trouble in establishing rule of law comes from an unexpected source: Georgian lawyers themselves, in particular those who worked during the Soviet regime.

"This is a fight over who will control the bar association – it's really between the old guard, the old psychology, and a new movement," says Gia Getsadze, an attorney working for a USAID-funded legal reform project.

The conflict is the most recent sign of trouble in the overall reform process in this strategically important country, recipient of more than a billion dollars in aid from the US alone since 1992.

Aimed at discarding practices leftover from the Soviet past, judicial reforms include such basic Western concepts as an independent judiciary and the protection of the rights of the accused. Under a new law on the bar, all attorneys are supposed to pass new exams aimed at raising standards in Georgia, where bribe-taking has traditionally been the most common way of settling legal disputes.

Last month, reformers managed to defeat a legislative attempt to "grandfather" current lawyers out of having to take the exam. If successful, the amendment would have opened the door to domination of the bar by the Collegium of Advocates, the Soviet-era public defenders organization, to which most of the country's lawyers belong – an organization widely seen as corrupt.

"We may have won this battle, but the war is definitely not over yet," says Carolyn Clark Campbell, the country representative for the American Bar Association. "The Collegium does not want to lose power, and if they succeed in hanging on, it will stop the legal reform process," says Mr. Getsadze.

The Collegium's president, Nugzar Birkaia, rejects any notion that his organization is trying to preserve a corrupt status quo. "Of course that is not true," he said in an interview in his office in the Ministry of Justice.

In years past Georgia won praise for overhauling its Soviet legal system: A new constitution was adopted in 1995, followed by eight new codes, including an administrative code - which lays out rules for relations between the government and its citizens – and a freedom of information act more liberal than its US model.

These achievements were the handiwork of young reformers brought into government by President Eduard Shevardnadze, after his resounding electoral victory in 1995 for ending a civil war. But in recent years, most of these reformers have left government, disillusioned with what they say is Shevardnadze's tolerance of corruption in his administration.

"I left his office when I saw no understanding of the basic concept of the rule of law.... He cannot put himself under the law or Constitution," says Dato Usupashvili, formerly the president's legal adviser, who now works with a USAID-funded legal reform project.

Observers also point to problems in other areas of the judicial system. Georgia's human rights record has worsened in several areas in the past year, according to the latest State Department report, including an increase in arbitrary arrest and detention. "Neither the President nor other senior officials took concrete steps to address these problems and impunity remained a problem," the report, issued in March, said.

Most critics say reforms started to stall in 1998. Changes legislated up until that time have eroded through presidential decrees and amendments passed by a parliament in which the president's party has a majority. For example, the country's criminal procedures code, adopted to meet the standards required for membership in the Council of Europe, extended a range of legal protections to those under police investigation, including the right to complain to a judge about being beaten or tortured while in custody. But just weeks after Georgia's ascension into the Council of Europe on April 28, 1998, amendments severely weakening these new rights started being passed.

"The Council of Europe was simply fooled by the Georgian government," says Levan Ramishvili, who tracks legislation for the Liberty Institute, a prominent NGO based in Tbilisi and funded by the Soros Foundation.

He also points to the law on freedom of speech and the press – stillborn since passing a first reading in Parliament in 1999 – as another example of reform that is faltering. Ramishvili also criticizes a government effort to restore harsh Soviet-era criminal punishments for libeling public officials.

The new bar exams are part of a wider effort to replace a practice of "diplomas for sale" with degrees based on merit. Shaky credentials help perpetuate a system which favors those with the best political connections or the most money. "[Within a circle of prosecutors, public defenders, and police] self-interested state agents make decisions every day that direct outcomes of cases, often with no consideration of the legal positions of either the defendant or the victim," says a recent USAID assessment of the Georgian judicial system.

The reforms once seemed promising. In the past two years there has been a turnover of more than 80 percent of the country's 340 judges - with a dramatic drop in median age. There is also the beginning of an adversarial system, but it isn't clear how deep the changes go.

"From the standpoint of ethics, the [new] judges have not improved, the whole system still stands on bribery. The new ones might be just more clever in hiding their corruption," says lawyer Ketti Kvartshava.

One reason Georgia is having trouble making reform stick is money. Ms. Kvartskhava says the best judge she knew quit after not being paid his full salary for three years.

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