The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial. The Public Defender’s Office reported numerous violations of the right to a fair trial, and NGOs noted this right was not enforced in some high-profile, politically sensitive cases (see Political Prisoners and Detainees below). NGOs reported courts were inconsistent in their approaches to closing hearings to the public and at times did not provide an explanation for holding a closed hearing.
Defendants are presumed innocent and must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have a right to be present at their trial and to have a public trial except where national security, privacy, or protection of a juvenile is involved.
The law allows for trial in absentia in certain cases where the defendant has left the country. The code on administrative offenses does not provide the necessary due process provisions, especially when dealing with violations that could result in a defendant’s loss of liberty.
On March 21, the president declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the state of emergency, remote court hearings via electronic means of communication were possible. In May parliament amended the criminal procedure code (CPC) to permit remote criminal court hearings until July 15. In July amendments were made to permit remote criminal hearings until January 2021. December amendments permitted remote criminal hearings until July 1, 2021. The use of remote litigation was not consistently applied. Some judges and court users opposed any form of video conferencing in court proceedings. The low quality of voice and image transmission during video conferences, an insufficient number of properly equipped courtrooms, and the small number of video rooms in places of detention made remote proceedings difficult. During this time NGO representatives, who were largely barred from monitoring court proceedings, and legal professionals expressed concerns that remote litigation posed challenges for the right of the accused to a public hearing and impeded secure, confidential communication with defendants and access to evidence. They also noted remote litigation caused delays due to technical difficulties and witness intimidation when witnesses were physically present in a police station.
The law does not prescribe a maximum period for investigation of cases but stipulates a maximum period, nine months, for pretrial detention. If courts do not complete a case within this period, defendants must be released from pretrial detention pending completion of the trial. The criminal procedure code requires trial courts to issue a verdict within 24 months of completing a pretrial hearing.
In its report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA noted unreasonable delays in cases and court hearings were a serious factor in limiting the right to timely justice. The requirement of a continuous trial was met only in jury trial cases. GYLA also reported weak reasoning in court judgments and judges’ inability to maintain order in many cases. In its annual report for 2019 released in April, the Public Defender’s Office highlighted consideration of criminal cases was often delayed, going unreasonably beyond the terms determined by legislation, particularly in appeals courts and in administrative cases appealed by prisoners. The office also highlighted unreasonable delays–sometimes for five months–in courts’ handing decisions to parties and shortcomings in the examination of civil and administrative cases by appellate courts within the statutory time limit.
Examples of delayed proceedings included the cases of Temur Barabadze and founding Millennium Challenge Fund Georgia CEO Lasha Shanidze and his father, Shalva. The Shanidzes were convicted of embezzlement in 2011 after Barabadze testified against them. Barabadze later recanted his testimony, but a judicial review of the Shanidzes’ case continued to await the resolution of Barabadze’s case, also on charges of embezzlement. Hearings for Barabadze, however, did not begin until 2017. The trial court acquitted him in 2018, but the appellate court convicted him on the less serious charge of abuse of power following an appeal. In April 2019 prosecutors appealed the Tbilisi Appellate Court decision convicting Barabadze on lesser charges to the Supreme Court. The case was awaiting a Supreme Court decision as of year’s end.
Defendants have the right to meet with an attorney of their choice without hindrance, supervision, or undue restriction. Defendants enjoy the right to have an attorney provided at public expense if they are indigent, but many defendants and their attorneys did not always have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. In April the Public Defender’s Office reported positive changes made by the state in 2019 resulted in more frequent involvement of a lawyer in a case within the first 24 hours.
GYLA monitored online criminal trials during the March-June period. According to GYLA’s report, plea agreement court hearings, as well as pretrial and merits hearings, showed the defense was unable to establish effective communication with defendants remanded in penitentiary institutions due to emergency state restrictions. During virtual court hearings, several lawyers requested permission to have a conversation with the accused privately, yet the secretary of the session explained he or she would not be able to ensure the confidentiality of the conversation with the accused.
In criminal proceedings defendants and their attorneys have the right of access to prosecution evidence relevant to their cases no later than five days before the pretrial hearing and may make copies. Defendants have the right to question and confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf at trial. Defendants have the right to refuse to testify or incriminate themselves.
The Public Defender’s Office, civil society, and the international community recognized the administrative code lacked some due process provisions, since the law allows for those found guilty of administrative offenses to be punished with imprisonment without the due process provisions afforded to defendants charged under the criminal code.
Although a defendant generally has the right to appeal a conviction, making an effective appeal under the administrative code is difficult. By law defendants have 30 days to file an appeal once they receive the court’s written and reasoned judgment. Administrative sentences that entail incarceration must be appealed within 48 hours and other sentences within 10 days.
On May 22, parliament amended the code of administrative offenses to conform with standards set by the Constitutional Court. The amendments made it easier to appeal administrative penalties, including appeals of 15-day administrative detentions. These amendments followed a previous round of November 2019 administrative code amendments in response to an April 2019 Constitutional Court ruling which stated that requiring a defendant to appeal a court decision within 10 days after the issuance of that decision was unconstitutional. Parliament accordingly amended the code of administrative offenses by permitting an appeal within 10 days of the defendant’s receipt of the court’s decision containing the reasoning for the ruling. The amendments also introduced a new rule that if the circumstances do not allow the court decision to be handed to the defendant, it will be made public and will be considered to have been submitted to the defendant on the third day of its publication.
By law a court must certify that a plea bargain was reached without violence, intimidation, deception, or illegal promise and that the accused had the opportunity to obtain legal assistance. Plea bargaining provisions in the criminal procedure code provide safeguards for due process. The evidentiary standard for plea agreements stipulates that evidence must be sufficient to find a defendant guilty without a full trial of a case and must satisfy an objective person that the defendant committed the crime. In a report covering March 2019 through February, GYLA stated its monitors attended 527 plea agreement court hearings against 558 defendants. In four cases only, the court did not grant the motion submitted by the Prosecutor General’s Office on a plea agreement. In 190 (34 percent) of the observed court hearings, judges did not fully inform the defendants of their rights relating to the plea agreement. In 52 (10 percent) of the cases, the judge did not ask the accused whether he had been subjected to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment by law enforcement officials.
Based on the monitoring of criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests outside parliament, on June 24, the Human Rights Center reported defendants accepted unfair plea deals and often admitted guilt only to avoid a lengthy and delayed criminal process against them. This often happened when defendants were placed in pretrial detention. When making a decision on the plea agreement, the court is required to examine whether the accusation is substantiated, whether the requested punishment is just, and whether there is valid evidence to prove the guilt of the defendant. According to the Human Rights Center, however, these requirements were not met in the criminal cases related to the June 2019 protests.