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Georgia's Bail Lottery

Poor defendants say they cannot afford bail, while rich clients get off lightly.
By Inga Alavidze
Kukuri Kobaladze, 32, has been in jail in Tbilisi since last October. On February 21, he was convicted of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Kobaladze spent the entire pre-trial period in detention, although the court had agreed to release him on bail. But the bail sum the prosecutor asked for and the judge agreed to was the fantastic amount of 170,000 laris (around 100,000 US dollars), an amount of money poor Kobaladze could never afford.

Kobaladze has a wife, mother and two small children at home for whom he was the only breadwinner. One of the children is sick with a hernia condition.

“At first I thought it was a matter of 1,700 laris,” said Kukuri’s mother Zaira. “That sounded a lot to me, but I thought OK, I’ll ask favours and beg my acquaintances to help and collect the sum, I won’t leave my son in prison. You can’t imagine what happened to me when I took a closer look at the piece of paper. I thought I was dreaming - 170,000 laris! I won’t be able to collect that amount of money in my whole life.”

Since her son was taken into custody, Zaira Kobaladze has learnt by heart a part of article 168 of Georgia’s criminal code, which says that “the level of monetary bail is set depending on the gravity of the crime committed and the material capacities of the accused person”.

“Why isn’t the law applied to my son?” said Zaira Kobaladze. “You see the poverty we live in.”

Kobaladze’s lawyer Lia Chuchkashvili told IWPR she had made representations to the court that her client was poor and could not afford a high bail payment. She then appealed the latter, but this was rejected.

Sozar Subari, Georgia’s human rights ombudsman, called the tribulations of the Kobaladze family a “paradox of Georgian justice”, which he said was far from unique.

Other forms of sanction, which were previously employed as more lenient alternatives to pre-trial detention, such as being put under police surveillance, house arrest or required not to leave your place of residence, have been abolished in Georgia. This leaves release on bail as the main measure applied by courts to suspects in criminal cases.

In another case, a city judge imposed bail of 100,000 laris (around 60,000 dollars) on a third-year student Giorgy Jikuri, who was also accused of acquiring a stolen telephone.

“Who can guarantee that my brother, who has never committed a crime in his life, won’t come out of jail a drug-addict or a thief?” asked Giorgy’s brother Soso. “We all know what life’s like inside our prisons.”

Subari said the Georgian courts were blindly carrying out the will of the prosecutor general’s office.

“I’m sure that had the prosecutor asked for 170 million dollars in bail, the judge would have granted that too,” Subari told IWPR.

The prosecutor who pressed for the enormous bail sum for Kobaladze, Giorgy Tsiklauri, has now been appointed a judge.

When asked to comment on these high bail demands, both the prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court told IWPR that they did not comment on individual cases. Georgian law gives judges discretion to set bail amounts, which should be no lower than 2,000 laris.

The cases of Kobaladze and Jikuri have both been highlighted in the Georgian media, but no proper explanation has been given for the astronomical bail payments the two men were asked to make.

Human rights campaigners say that the system seems completely arbitrary: not only are poor suspects being kept in jail because they cannot pay astronomically high sums, but others accused of much more serious offences are being asked to pay much less.

For example, David Ingorokva, head of the Georgian International Gas Corporation, was charged with embezzlement of state property but was released on bail of just 50,000 laris. The same bail sum was asked of Zaza Sopromadze, director of the United Social Insurance Fund, who was charged with abuse of power.

There was an angry public reaction to the decision by a court in the city of Kutaisi to release on bail directly from the courtroom three patrol policemen, who had been arrested over the murder of a 19-year-old named Valery Pkhakadze. The official version of events is that Pkhakadze was shot dead as he was trying to break into and rob a basement in a block of flats.

The policemen were set free after paying out the minimum bail of just 2,000 laris.

“170,000 laris for buying a stolen telephone, 2,000 for [alleged] involvement in a [murder] and 50,000 for embezzlement of state property - that’s the illogical logic of the Georgian justice system,” said Nana Kakabadze, who heads the non-governmental organisation Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights.

The head of the Supreme Court, Konstantin Kublashvili, told Imedi television that instances of bail had increased and this was “in complete compliance with the law”.

According to figures from the Supreme Court, 58 per cent of those arrested were sentenced to pre-trial detention in 2006 and the remainder were released on bail or other binding conditions. The number of instances of bail increased by 27 per cent compared to the year before.

Human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari said the increasing use of bail had a positive side but the way it was being implemented gave cause for concern.

Subari cited another case in which policemen in the Akhalgori region were accused of beating two teenage residents of a children’s home, Levan Kojakov and Yason Geladze, with plastic bottles full of water, trying to make the teenagers confess to having stolen an electric cable from a local post office building.

The prosecutor’s office charged the policemen with exceeding their duties, as well as use of torture and falsification of evidence.

However, despite the severity of the allegations, the Mtskheta district court agreed to release the policemen on bail of 5,000 laris.

Georgian opposition parliamentary deputy Levan Berdzenishvili said all efforts to make the law work in Georgia had failed. “The courts cannot make the right decisions, because they are permanently working under pressure from the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “They want to legalise lawlessness.”

Another issue that campaigners are highlighting is those who do pay bail money frequently do not have the money returned to them - and in some cases do not even bother to ask for it.

“This almost never happens,” said Kakabadze. “A lot of people come to because of this problem, asking for help.”

Khatuna Tskhvediashvili, spokesperson for the prosecutor general’s office, said this issue was not the responsibility of his office and they had no comment.

However, Nana Vasadze, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court, said that bail money was paid to the prosecutor’s office. “The prosecutor’s office ought to return the debt and you will receive detailed information about this only from them,” she told IWPR.

Inga Alavidze is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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