A screengrab from TV footage showing Rustavi 2 TV CEO Nika Gvaramia, wearing a t-shirt with broadcaster’s logo and inscription reading “defend freedom”, speaks to Tbilisi City Court judge Tamaz Urtmelidze on October 19, 2015.
A Tbilisi City Court judge refused on Monday to recuse himself from Rustavi 2 TV ownership dispute case after respondents argued the judge was biased in favor of a plaintiff.
Meanwhile outside the Tbilisi City Court hundreds of people were gathered in support of the Rustavi 2 saying that the government wants to silence the opposition-minded broadcaster.
Motion for recusal of the judge Tamaz Urtmelidze was filed by Rustavi 2 TV lawyers and was opposed by legal representatives of the plaintiff Kibar Khalvashi, who co-owned the broadcaster in 2004-2006 and who is now trying to reclaim his shares in Rustavi 2 TV through his lawsuit.
The respondent’s motion for recusal of the judge was based mostly on two main arguments.
The one was a criminal case that was filed just recently against judge Tamaz Urtmelidze’s mother.
Another one was several negative comments posted by judge’s wife on her Facebook account about Rustavi 2 TV and its chief executive Nika Gvaramia, before and also after the court dispute over the ownership of the broadcaster was launched.
Rustavi 2 TV, which claims that Khalvashi is in fact acting on behalf of the government and upon instructions of the former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, alleges that the government can exert influence over the judge Urtmelidze over the criminal case that was filed against her mother.
On October 12 prosecutor’s office filed criminal charges against mother of judge Urtmelidze in connection to a domestic incident that occurred a year and nine months ago. The timing of these criminal charges, involving inflicting minor bodily injuries to her son-in-law, prompted allegations that the authorities want to exert pressure on the judge using possible prosecution of his mother.
Prosecutor’s office denied allegation and said that initiating criminal charges in sensitive cases of domestic incidents more than a year later is a standard procedure as parties involved are given time for out-of-court settlement.
During hearing of the motion, Rustavi 2 TV chief executive, Nika Gvaramia, told the judge: “I do not respect you personally.”
“This company [Rustavi 2 TV] is in danger because of you,” Gvaramia told the judge, who responded by telling Rustavi 2 TV CEO to keep “corrections”.
“I regret that I supported your appointment as a judge,” Gvaramia continued, apparently referring to the fact that as UNM lawmaker in 2004-2007, he also served as a member of the High Council of Justice.
“My vote in favor of you was decisive. That’s one of the most ironic and cynical mistakes in my life,” Gvaramia told the judge.
Khalvashi’s lawyer, Paata Salia, told the judge that respondent’s motion for recusal was “groundless” and “absurd”, which, he said, was failing to substantiate that there was reasonable suspicion over judge’s impartiality.
Announcing the decision, judge Urtmelidze said: “The motion asking for judge’s recusal is not accepted.”
On his wife’s negative Facebook posts on Rustavi 2 TV, judge Urtmelidze said that those were “private comments” in reaction to Gvaramia’s statements about him in which Rustavi 2 TV chief executive was accusing Urtmelidze of being “corrupt”, as well as reaction to Gvaramia’s threats in which he was saying that “soil will burn under judge Urtmelidze’s feet.”
“Those remarks [in Facebook posts by the wife] were not agreed with me and I do not share them,” judge Urtmelidze said. “The spouse is not a judge.”
On the second argument over criminal case against his mother, the judge said that formally his mother, Mdinara Giorgobiani, “is not considered to be my family member,” prompting laughter among Rustavi 2 TV supporters in the courtroom.
“I was distanced from this legal proceeding from the very beginning,” judge Urtmelidze continued. “I have not even been interested in this case.”
The judge suggested that there is an “attempted pressure” on him from the side of the respondents and his recusal would amount to yielding pressure.
“The ongoing campaign against the judge by the respondent [Rustavi 2 TV and its current owners] requires maximum patience and firmness from the judge, who has to deliver verdict into the case independently and impartially despite of possible unpleasant circumstances. Recusing the judge amid attempted pressure, which has a nature of campaign, will undermine public confidence towards the judiciary, because [recusal of the judge] in such circumstances will prompt any party to carry out further campaign against a judge for the purpose of recusal,” judge Urtmelidze said.
The court hearing continued by discussing other motions filed by the parties.
At one point during the hearing, Rustavi 2 TV CEO Gvaramia engaged in verbal exchange with the judge and the latter ordered him to leave the courtroom.
Commenting on Rustavi 2 TV’s intention to demand judge Urtmelidze’s recusal, vice speaker of the Parliament from GD ruling coalition, Manana Kobakhidze, said on October 14 that the judge should “withstand such attacks” and should not recuse himself. “If he fails to withstand, then he should recuse not only from this case, but should completely distance from the judiciary,” she said.
Rustavi 2 TV was providing live coverage of developments in the courtroom and outside the court building, where hundreds of people were gathered in support of the broadcaster, who say that they would defend Rustavi 2 TV.
Opposition politicians were also among the participants of the rally, including from UNM and Free Democrats parliamentary opposition parties.
Parliament voted down on October 16 a draft statement tabled by opposition UNM party, expressing “concern over government pressure” on Rustavi 2 TV.
Speaking on behalf of his party on October 17, a senior UNM lawmaker, Giorgi Gabashvili, said that “seizure” of Rustavi 2 TV by the government will result into “permanent protest rallies”, which will also include “picketing of government buildings.”
“If [ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili] decides to eventually destroy Rustavi 2 TV, we will force the authorities to retreat through protest,” UNM MP Gabashvili said on October 17.