President Giorgi Margvelashvili met representatives of the Parliamentary opposition on March 14-15 to discuss the new surveillance bill, which was approved by the Parliament on March 1 and which entails the establishment of a special agency for conducting surveillance operations.
Members of the parliamentary majority did not attend the meeting.
“We saw two problems in this legislation; the first is whether the proposed institution will be really independent. We have some question marks on the State Security Service retaining a lot of levers over the new agency… The law also imposes a great burden over telecommunications service providers,” the President’s Parliamentary Secretary Ana Dolidze said on March 15 after a meeting between the President and the Alliance of Patriots MPs.
A day earlier, President Margvelashvili and members of his administration met MPs from the United National Movement and the Movement for Liberty-European Georgia.
Parliamentary Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze commented on President Margvelashvili’s political consultations and the possibility of him vetoing the bill on March 15.
“Our positions on the bill are clear and we decided to approve it based exactly on that. We will, therefore, stick to this position and if the bill is vetoed, we will put it to vote again,” Kobakhidze said.
The new bill entails the establishment of the Operative-Technical Agency under the State Security Service.
The head of the Operative-Technical Agency will be selected by a seven-member commission and, upon nomination of the head of the State Security Service, will be appointed by the Prime Minister.
According to the law, the head of the State Security Service will nominate at least three candidates to the seven-member special commission, which will be composed of the head of the State Security Service, deputy chairperson of the Supreme Court, chairpersons of parliamentary committees for legal issues, defense and security, human rights and civil integration, as well as the Public Defender and the representative of the Government of Georgia. The commission will shortlist the nominees through secret ballot and propose the selected candidate to the Prime Minister for approval.
The head of the agency will be appointed within three months after the bill’s enforcement.
According to the law, the Agency will be authorized to conduct telephone communications monitoring and recording; telecommunication channel and software monitoring; geo-location tracking in real time; monitoring of postal messages; covert audio and video surveillance and photo recording.
The parliamentary opposition slammed the bill claiming that the new regulations will not change the situation with respect to illegal surveillance. Elene Khoshtaria of the Movement for Liberty-European Georgia said that “a huge effort was made [by the opposition] in the Parliament not to adopt this law.”
Tinatin Bokuchava of the United National Movement said that the party would challenge the draft law in court to ensure that “our citizens do not suffer from this unconstitutional law, which directly limits and interferes with their free lives.”
MP Eka Beselia of the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia, who chairs the Parliament’s committee on legal issues, said after the Parliament’s session on March 1 that they took into consideration all arguments and remarks “that could have been supported.”
Before the third hearing, the European Georgia submitted an alternative draft the Parliament’s committee on legal issues on February 16, which contained three basic components and envisaged the establishement of an independent agency; strengthening parliamentary oversight on it and the introduction of a two-level system of surveillance authorization. But the draft was voted down at the committee hearing.
The Parliament endorsed the government-supported legislation allowing security agencies to have direct, unrestricted access to telecom operators’ networks in 2014. President Margvelashvili vetoed the bill in November 2014, but the Parliament overrode it.
In 2015, the Public Defender’s Office and a group of civil society organizations, united in the This Affects You campaign, filed two separate lawsuits in the Constitutional Court requesting cancelation the legislative clauses, arguing that these regulations were violating the constitutional right to privacy. In addition, the Public Defender’s Office argued in its complaint that the security agency’s capabilities, allowing them unrestricted access to and collection of communications metadata (the time, length and phone numbers of the calls), was also unconstitutional.
On April 14, 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled that the legislation allowing security agency to have direct, unrestricted access to telecom operators’ networks to monitor communications was unconstitutional. The court also ordered to end this long-standing practice and to replace existing surveillance regulations with the new one before March 31, 2017.
An ad hoc parliamentary working group was established in January, 2017 to draft amendments to Georgia’s surveillance regulations for bringing it in line with the Constitutional Court’s decision.