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MPs Set for Drawn-Out Debates on Bill to Partially Decriminalize Illegal Entry in Breakaway Regions
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 3 May.'13 / 15:08

Parliament will continue discussing package of bills on partial decriminalization of illegal entry to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia at a session on May 15 after lengthy and at times deliberately dragged out first day of heated debates failed to lead to vote as lawmakers run out of time on May 2.

The government-proposed bill offers to make first time illegal entry to breakaway regions by foreign citizens subject of administrative punishment, involving GEL 400 fine, and keeping criminal punishment in case of repeat violation by a same person, but the bill also envisages easing this criminal punishment as well. Currently the punishment envisages prison term from two to four years.

UNM parliamentary minority group, which is strongly against of the proposed package of bills, waged procedural war to at first delay the launch of the session itself on May 2 and then during the debates used every opportunity to protract discussions.

UNM lawmakers said that by resorting to this tactic they wanted to drag out the process as much as possible in order to delay passing of the bill and on the other hand to win more time for debating and attracting more public attention to this, as they put it, “shameful” proposal of the government.

UNM insists that the proposed package of bills, which involves three separate legislative amendments which have to be discussed by the lawmakers separately, “weakens regime” set by Georgia’s law on occupied territories, which, they say, is completely unacceptable in the condition when there is not even a slight progress in de-occupation process.

During the debates UNM lawmaker Giorgi Gabashvili said that “bowing, making concessions to Russia and taking such undignified step will not bring any result.”

“There are several people among you and in the government, who know very well what does it mean to vote for this bill,” he told GD lawmakers. “By voting for this bill you are voting for setback to Georgia’s interests.”

“As soon as you vote for this bill you will become Lavrov’s army,” MP Gabashvili said, referring to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who said year ago that Moscow would consider lifting visa rules for Georgian citizens in case of revoking by Tbilisi its law on occupied territories.

Deputy State Minister for Reintegration, Keti Tsikhelashvili, who presented the bill, was repeatedly saying during the debates that the proposed bill had nothing to do with “weakening of regime” set by the law on occupied territories as this latter law was neither being revoked nor otherwise sidelined. She said that the proposed bill had also nothing to do with Russia or its demands and amendments were purely of humanitarian nature.

She said that absolute majority of those 254 people who became subject of criminal punishment, including imprisonment in 169 cases, had no idea at all that Georgia had such law and were unaware that they were violating law when arriving in Abkhazia from the territories other than controlled by Georgia. She brought an example of two students, Armenian citizens, who were in southern Russia and decided to return back to Armenia via Abkhazia; she said that the two young men were arrested upon arriving on the Georgian-controlled territory from Abkhazia and spent year and a half in prison. Tsikhelashvili said that “only one-seventh” of those 254 persons, who were either imprisoned or fined for violating this rule, were Russian citizens. She also said that in several cases punishment, mainly fine, was applied to citizens of EU-member states.

“These people were ordinary citizens, who had nothing to do with occupation of [Georgian territories],” she said.

During the debates the Deputy State Minister for Reintegration had also cited for number of times a recommendation from the European Union to review “restrictive aspects” of law on occupied territories.

This year’s annual progress report by the European Commission on Implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy also says: “Following the change of government, there are some encouraging signs of possibly more effective engagement with the breakaway territories, and a more relaxed implementation of the Law on Occupied Territories.”

GD lawmaker from Republican Party, Davit Berdzenishvili, said during the debates that UNM’s attempts to link this issue to Russia in a context of accusing GD of bowing to Moscow’s demands were out of touch with reality and pitiful especially from the political force, which back in 2006 was refusing to vote for Georgia’s withdrawal from Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which Georgia quit after the August, 2008 war. MP Berdzenishvili also said that Russia “has already achieved what it wanted” in Georgia after the August, 2008 war and added that it happened when UNM was in power.

“Yes Russia achieved what it wanted, but it achieved it on October 1, 2012,” responded UNM MP Akaki Minashvili, referring to the parliamentary elections won by the Georgian Dream coalition. “We will use all the means not to let you pass this bill.”

The parliamentary session was suspended late on Thursday evening without even finishing debates on the first out of three legislative amendments as the sitting can only be held before 9pm. The package includes one amendment is to the law on occupied territories and two others are to the criminal code and code on administrative offenses. GD MP and vice-speaker of the Parliament, Manana Kobakhidze, who chaired the parliamentary session on Thursday, said that discussion of the bill would continue on May 15.

GD MP Zurab Abashidze said that UNM’s attempts to drag out the process was incomprehensible, but added that the parliamentary majority “is not in hurry”; he also said that GD was willing to engage in working over the bill to improve it if needed during the second reading.

The package of bills has to be passed with three readings by the Parliament and after that it will be sent to the President for signature; but judging from UNM’s strong opposition to the bill, likelihood of presidential veto is high.

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