Ombudsman should not be perceived as “a person being permanently in conflict with the government and public officials,” Giorgi Tugushi, an incoming public defender told lawmakers on July 31.
Parliament approved Tugushi, nominated by the ruling party, as new Public Defender for a five-year term; he will assume duties after outgoing Public Defender Sozar Subari’s term in office expires on September 16. Another candidate MP Dimitri Lortkipanidze, nominated by the parliamentary minority, was rejected by the ruling party.
“Public Defender should be regarded as an assistant to these [state] structures in order to on the one hand to prevent violation of human rights and laws by the state institutions and on the other hand to help restore violated rights of people,” Tugushi told lawmakers before voting when laying out his priorities for the post.
He also said that Public Defender “should not refrain from confronting those who violate human rights.”
In general Tugushi was refraining from commenting on the outgoing Public Defender’s five-year tenure saying it was not up to him to assess whether Subari was “politicized” or not – an allegation, which the authorities and ruling party were permanently leveling against Subari calling him “opposition politician.” Similar allegations were again voiced during the hearings on July 31, when parliamentary majority leader, Petre Tsiskarishvili, said that in the position of Public Defender, Subari was promoting “his political goals, instead of protecting rights of those in need.”
But at few occasions Tugushi, who now works for EU-funded project aimed at strengthening capacity of the Public Defender’s Office, voiced some critical remarks in address of Subari with whom, he said, he had a very good cooperation. Subari also said in a recent newspaper interview that he had “fruitful cooperation” with Tugushi for years as the latter worked on human rights issues in various capacities. Subari described Tugushi as “a good specialist.”
“I and Mr. Subari have different views on some issues and I was discussing these issues with him and I was saying often that to a certain extent, some sort of partiality was observed in his [bi-annual] reports [on human rights record in the country],” Tugushi told lawmakers.
When asked to further specify, he said: “I was telling him that he could have been non-aggressive on some issues; to make soft and more precise legal analysis of some issues. That’s all.”
Another issue on which Tugushi was pressed by the opposition lawmakers was on the question of “political prisoners” – those which some human rights groups, opposition parties and the outgoing Public Defender believe were arrested by the authorities under the pretext of various either administrative or criminal offenses because of their political activities or for having links with opposition parties.
Tugushi said that that one should be cautious before leveling such “a serous allegation.”
“Each such case should be thoroughly studied by a Public Defender and make statements on the matter afterwards,” he said.
Issue of use of less-lethal projectile launchers by the police against protesters on November 7, 2007 and on May 6, 2009 was also raised by the lawmakers from the parliamentary minority group. Public Defender, Sozar Subari, has been frequently accusing the Interior Ministry and Minister Vano Merabishvili of violating the law for the use of such weapons. Parliament amended law on police in mid-July and included less-lethal weapons in the list of special means, which the police are eligible to use.
When asked if use of less-lethal projectile launchers was illegal or not, Tugushi responded: “There was an excessive use of force on November 7 [when riot police dispersed anti-governmental rallies] and it was confirmed by the Human Rights Watch as well; but as far as non-lethal weapons are concerned, I do not deem it [use of such weapons] to be a function of an ombudsman to determine whether it is or not a criminal offense; it’s not part of Public Defender’s duties.”
“Ombudsman should try his best to prevent such cases,” he continued. “I remember recommendations put forth by Mr. Subari on this issue and also those arguments put forth by the authorities saying that it was meant in the law [that police had the right to use less-lethal weapons]; of course it’s better if such issues are prescribed in the law and also additional instructions to regulate the issue are also required.”
A lawmaker from the ruling party, Khatuna Gogorishvili, asked Tugushi if he shared the opinion of the outgoing Public Defender that a concordat - constitutional agreement - between the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church was violating the principle of equality as the agreement was giving important privileges to the Orthodox Church compared with other religious groups in Georgia. Tugushi said that he did not deem it necessary to “review” the concordat.
In his address to the Parliament, when speaking about the priorities, Tugushi said he would focus on protection of human rights in detention centers; rights of internally displaced persons; minority rights; rights of children; rights of disabled; property rights.
He also said that the Public Defender’s Office required establishing effective mechanisms for addressing “thousands of complaints” filed by citizens to the Public Defender’s Office annually, as well as to establish “strong mechanisms for providing consultancy to the citizens.”
Tugushi also said that Public Defender’s bi-annual reports were too voluminous and required to be shortened, “which does not at all mean that something will be missed from it.” “Reports should be readable,” he said.