European Court Ruling on the Case of Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili
On June 14, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered its ruling on the case of Georgia’s former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili. The ruling examined the compliance of pre-trial detention measures used against Merabishvili in 2013 with the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Did the pre-trial detention lack reasonable grounds?
The Court stated that the use of pre-trial detention did not lack reasonable grounds. The Court explained that the pre-trial detention used by the local court in May 22-25, 2013, was substantiated, legal and was based on foreseeable legal norms. The Court took into account the circumstances that Merabishvili possessed an allegedly forged passport, a large amount of cash, and that his wife left the country soon after Merabishvili was summoned by the investigation. In addition, the applicant allegedly pressured the head of border police and a police officer. Considering these circumstances, the Court found risks that the investigation could have been impeded and that the use of pre-trial detention was substantiated. Therefore, the Court did not find a violation of Article 5 § 1 of the Convention.
- Did local courts substantiate their decision to extend the pre-trial detention?
The Court stated that the decision to extend the pre-trial detention was not properly substantiated by local courts. After 4 months of initial pre-trial detention Tbilisi City Court did not substantiate the necessity of an extension and refused Merabishvili’s request to alter pre-trial detention with bail. In this regard, the Court found a violation of Article 5 § 3.
- Was pre-trial detention used for achieving “hidden objectives” outside of legitimate goals (violation of Article 18)?
The Court ruled that the investigative authorities had used pre-trial detention not only for those purposes prescribed by the Convention. Article 18 aims to disallow governments to use human rights restrictions for the purpose of achieving "hidden objectives" incompatible with the Convention.
According to the applicant, the pre-trial detention used against him was aimed at excluding him from political life, resulting in the weakening of his party. As evidence Vano Merabishvili presented statements made by high-ranking officials of various countries, international institutions and non-governmental organizations. The Court stated that it takes into account the general political context, but that the legal and political assessments should be separated. The Court makes its decisions based on specific legally identifiable facts and cannot base them on political assessments.
One such fact that was taken into account by the Court was Merabishvili’s claim that he was removed from his prison cell for a late-night meeting with then chief prosecutor, who pressured him to obtain information about the death of Zurab Zhvania and criminal proceedings against Mikheil Saakashvili. The Court considered this incident to be credible for the following reasons: 1) the applicant described the incident convincingly and in detail, and was ready to cooperate with the investigative authorities. 2) The Ministry of Prisons did not provide the recordings made by surveillance cameras that could either confirm or deny this incident. 3) High-ranking officials, specifically, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Prisons and the Chief Prosecutor all opposed a comprehensive investigation on the basis of the applicant’s claims. 4) One official from the Ministry of Prisons confirmed that such an incident had indeed taken place, after which she was soon dismissed from her position. 5) The government did not provide the court with any serious explanation of this incident.
Considering the above, the Court concluded that the use of pre-trial detention against Vano Merabishvili was aimed at achieving illegitimate goals along with legitimate ones. Specifically, it was used as a mechanism of exerting pressure on Merabishvili to obtain information on unrelated investigations. Therefore, the Court found a violation of Article 18 of the Convention in conjunction with right to freedom. This is the first case against Georgia, in which the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 18 of the Convention. This fact will have a negative impact on the country's international image.
- Should Vano Merabishvili be released from prison?
There is no legal obligation to release Vano Merabishvili from prison based on the decision of the European Court, since the decision only applies to his pre-trial detention. The Court stated that along with “hidden objectives” incompatible with the Convention pre-trial detention was originally used for legitimate purposes as well. In addition, through its decision the ECHR did not and could not assess the compliance with the Convention of decisions made by local courts, pursuant to which the former Prime Minister was convicted and is currently serving a prison sentence.
- How should the decision be executed, what are the Georgian government’s obligations?
The Georgian government is obliged to compensate the applicant for human rights violations with EUR 4,000. In addition, once the decision becomes final, the Council of Ministers of the Council of the Europe will adopt a special resolution, containing individual and general measures that will have to be taken for the proper execution of the decision. One of these measures is clearly going to be an effective and comprehensive investigation of the incident that led to the violation of Article 18 of the Convention. General measures could include taking effective steps in order for local courts to properly substantiate their decisions on extending pre-trial detentions in future similar cases.
- Was Vano Merabishvili given the status of a political prisoner?
The ECHR did not and could not have given the status of a political prisoner to Vano Merabishvili. The widely accepted definition of a political prisoner and such legal status does not exist in the international human rights law. Therefore, ECHR does not make decisions about whether a person is a political prisoner.
The discussions that followed in Georgia about the ECHR granting the status of a political prisoner to Merabishvili should be considered as political rather than legal assessment. The ECHR stated that apart from the identified “hidden objectives” for extending Merabishvili’s pre-trial detention, there were legitimate grounds to do so as well. In addition, the Court evaluated neither his guilt or innocence in any specific action.
We believe that the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights has once again illustrated the shortcomings of the Georgian justice system. Specifically, proper substantiation of decisions to extend pre-trial detention by local courts remains a challenge. The investigative authorities are not guided solely by legitimate goals and are unable to objectively and thoroughly investigate violations in the investigation process. Finally, public officials of political status seem to not be aware of their high responsibility in preventing human rights violations and the necessity to eliminate these violations.