After pre-trial hearings in the Tbilisi City Court, held in three sittings, a criminal case against former interior minister Vano Merabishvili in connection to break up of protest rally in Tbilisi in May, 2011 was set for trial upon its merit scheduled to start on December 11.
Charges, involving “exceeding official powers with aggravated circumstances”, in connection to break up of a protest rally, led by ex-parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, in Tbilisi overnight on May 26 2011, were filed against ex-PM and former interior minister Vano Merabishvili in late May, 2013 – a week after he was arrested and sent to pre-trial detention in connection to separate unrelated charges.
Prosecutors claim that Merabishvili, then interior minister, ordered “large scale and indiscriminate attack” on protesters on the night from May 25 to May 26 in 2011. The excessive force, prosecution claims, was used “deliberately” in order “to intimidate, punish and to pressurize physically and psychologically” the participants of the rally. Merabishvili denies charges as politically motivated.
A preliminary or pre-trial hearing involves proceedings when a judge has to decide on the admissibility of evidence submitted by the parties and hears various motions from the parties.
Defense has motioned for removing Merabishvili from pre-trial detention, but it was rejected. Even if the motion had been accepted by the judge, Merabishvili would have anyway remained in custody as he was also sent to pre-trial detention in connection to separate charges involving alleged embezzlement of state funds for UNM party purposes ahead of 2012 parliamentary elections.
During the pre-trial hearing on December 2 Merabishvili declined to be tried by jury and instead opted for trial by a judge. He said that he’s subject of politically motivated prosecution and claimed that if he agrees on jury trial, 12 potential jurors would also become subject of prosecution’s pressure to achieve desired verdict.
“This is a political trial and I don’t want those [potential jurors] to become part of this political pressure,” he told the judge on December 2.
Much of the two previous pre-trial court hearings were centered on admissibility issue of one piece of evidence, which was submitted by Merabishvili’s defense lawyers.
The evidence in question is a report, commissioned by the U.S. embassy and drawn up by U.S.-based security and crowd management consulting firm, Densus Group, in late July, 2011. The report represents an after-action review, analyzing how the operation to disperse anti-government protest rally overnight on May 26, 2011 was carried out and lays out recommendations to improve crowd management capabilities of the Georgian police.
Citing the report, which says that the tactical plan of the operation and the intelligence analysis “were sound and correctly and properly briefed to officers in advance of the dispersal operation”, defense lawyers argue that the document represents key piece of evidence against prosecution’s claims that Merabishvili ordered use of excessive force against protesters.
Claiming procedural violations, the prosecution was against of including this report as a piece of evidence in the case; prosecutors said that while submitting the evidence the defense failed to also summon as witnesses authors of the report for questioning during the trial making it impossible to verifying details of the report; prosecutors were saying that without summoning authors of the report there was no one to ask questions they have about the way the report was drawn up. Although prosecution says that some parts of the report back its case against Merabishvili, in overall the report was prepared based on information provided to its authors by then leadership of the Interior Ministry. According to the report, it was drawn up based on review of video footage from the scene and debriefs with Interior Ministry officials and police unit commanders involved in the operation.
Commenting on this report in August, 2013 the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, said: “My understanding is that the Densus report was intended to provide an objective view of the events of May 26 from a law enforcement perspective. I believe that the lawyers on each side will find elements of the report that they will use in either prosecuting or defending. That’s for the legal process to unfold.”
The pre-trial judge decided in favor of the defense and ordered to include the report as piece of evidence in the case to be further examined during the trial upon merits.
Merabishvili, who frequently uses his public appearances at court hearings for making political speeches, said during the pre-trial court sitting on December 2 that Nino Burjanadze, who led May 2011 protests, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin must be “very satisfied” by seeing him behind the bars. Burjanadze is among the prosecution’s witnesses, who are expected to be summoned for questioning during the trial.
Meanwhile, separate trial against Merabishvili in connection to criminal charges into alleged funneling of over GEL 5 million of public funds into UNM party’s election campaign last year, when Merabishvili served as PM, is already ongoing in the city court of Kutaisi. Zurab Tchiaberashvili, who at the time was healthcare minister, is a co-defendant in that case. Both deny charges as politically motivated. Over 100 out of up to 4,000 witnesses requested by the prosecution have so far been questioned during the ongoing trial. Witnesses, which have been questioned up to now, are people who, the prosecution says, were formally hired and paid to register unemployed persons in the lead up to the October, 2012 parliamentary elections, but were in fact used by UNM party as its activists for campaigning purposes. Defense lawyers say that the prosecution is dragging out the process by summoning large number of witnesses in order to protract the trial and by doing so to keep Merabishvili in pre-trial detention longer. The defense also stresses that witnesses, who have so far been questioned, do not point finger either at Merabishvili or Tchiaberashvili to corroborate prosecution’s claims that these two former officials were behind an alleged scheme of misappropriating state funds for party purposes. Prosecutors say that witnesses, who are now questioned, were summoned to confirm prosecutions’ claims that the scheme really existed and at the next stage they will start summoning those witnesses, whose testimonies, as prosecutors say, will show link between the scheme and the two accused.
Apart of these two cases, Merabishvili also faces criminal charges, involving alleged abuse of office, in connection to Sandro Girgvliani murder case in 2006; prosecutors accuse Merabishvili, who at the time was the interior minister, of series of premeditated actions aimed at covering up evidence in an attempt to obstruct justice into this murder case.