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Caucasus Report

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia (file photo)

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia has unveiled plans to increase the efficiency of the country's police force. But the proposed reforms have led to doubts about their ability to reverse a steady decline in public trust in the police, and to suggestions that Gakharia is not the right person for the job.

The 42-year-old Gakharia, a former economy minister with degrees in political science and business management from Moscow State University, was named interior minister four months ago as part of a sweeping cabinet reshuffle.

He has previously served as business ombudsman, and then, from November 2016 to November 2017, as minister of economy and sustainable development, but had absolutely no previous experience in law enforcement.

Despite this, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili predicted that he would cope successfully with his new duties, noting his management capabilities.

In a recent interview he gave to the website Civil.ge, Gakharia stressed that he sees himself first and foremost as a manager responsible for the efficient functioning of the ministry.

He singled out as its primary function guaranteeing security in a region where doing so is both "a huge challenge" and the precondition for economic growth. He also emphasized the need for absolute political neutrality.

Structural Changes, New Techniques

To meet those objectives, Gakharia plans to implement within the next couple of months a reform of the ministry that focuses on its three main departments: the traffic police, the criminal police, and the border police. Those reforms, he explained, will entail both structural changes and introducing new techniques (including digitization) to improve human resources procedures and render investigations more effective.

Gaakharia also plans a new 12-person unit within the ministry that will focus exclusively on human rights abuses, first and foremost domestic violence, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on January 25.

One change that is apparently not on the cards, however, is the introduction of the post of police chief, which would enable the interior minister to concentrate on policy issues. Gakharia declined to offer an explanation for that omission, while admitting that he currently spends up to 60 percent of his time on day-to-day affairs, meeting every morning with the heads of the three police departments.

Public confidence in the police in Georgia has been declining in recent years. (file photo)
Public confidence in the police in Georgia has been declining in recent years. (file photo)

Gakharia had earlier acknowledged "certain problems" with regard to public perceptions of the police, problems that he said could hinder the reform process. Public trust in the Georgian police has fallen from 67 percent in 2011 (the year before the parliamentary election that brought the Georgian Dream coalition to power) to 51 percent in 2017, according to Civil.ge.

Irakli Gharibashvili, who was named interior minister in the wake of that election victory, described the ministry in early 2013 as "a closed system that was under political diktat" and that functioned as a tool for "repressing" political opponents; he pledged to make it "transparent [and] open to public scrutiny."

Accordingly, Gharibashvili launched a sweeping reform of the police which, he claimed in November 2014, had transformed the way the police interact with the public at large.

Then in 2015, the security and intelligence services, which had been subsumed into the Interior Ministry in 2004, were decoupled from it to form a separate State Security Service, a move that then Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri predicted would provide for "the de-concentration of excessive power within [a single ministry] and … have a positive effect on the efficient protection of human rights." Gomelauri added that, if necessary, further reforms would be implemented gradually within the slimmed-down Interior Ministry.

When the separation took place in the summer of 2015, however, Gomelauri was named head of the new State Security Service, and former Penitentiaries Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili, who had worked at the Interior Ministry as an investigator in 1998-2004, succeeded him as interior minister.

Damning Statistics

In January 2016, Mghebrishvili appointed three new deputies in what he described as the first stage of fundamental staff and systemic reforms in the criminal and border police intended to produce better results in the fight against crime. A few weeks earlier, Mghebrishvili had admitted that the number of grave crimes had risen "to a certain extent."

It appears, however, that whatever further changes Mghebrishvili implemented failed to achieve the required result. In January 2018, the Interior Ministry published detailed crime statistics for the first time in two years. That data revealed a 5.4 percent increase in the total number of crimes committed in 2017 compared with 2016, while the percentage of crimes solved fell from 57.4 percent in 2016 to 53.2 percent in 2017, according to InterPressNews.

Two further initiatives are intended to underpin Gakharia's planned reform of his ministry. The first is a draft bill initiated by the Interior Ministry that will intensify the penalties for abetting or protecting so-called "thieves-in-law," meaning influential crime bosses who succeed in operating with impunity thanks to protection from senior government officials.

The second is the introduction, in January 2019, of an independent State Inspector Service that will probe suspected crimes committed by police officers. The rationale cited for that initiative is that the Prosecutor-General's Office has an appalling track record with regard to such investigations: Out of a total of 91 cases concerning the suspected use of force by police officers to which NGOs and the human rights ombudsman alerted the prosecutor's office in 2014-2017, only two ever came to trial, according to the news portal Caucasian Knot.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Protesters clash with police on July 20, 2016, near a police station that was seized by armed men a few days earlier.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, the Armenian authorities claim to have identified and thwarted no fewer than four conspiracies by armed militant groups to overthrow the country's leadership. Two of those groups are currently standing trial, and in both instances the prosecution's case against the accused is perceived as less than convincing.

This perception serves to substantiate the widely held belief that, in the words of the opposition Zharangutiun party, the Armenian leadership is engaged in "isolating, bullying or morally degrading by means of fabricated accusations politicians, freedom fighters, and [other] persons respected and trusted by the public.”

One of the two groups involved is the so-called Armenian Shield Regiment, whose members are accused of amassing weaponry with the intention of seizing government buildings and assassinating President Serzh Sarkisian.

ALSO READ: Trials Of Armenian 'Armed Groups' Reflect Leadership’s Fear Of Destabilization

The other comprises Zhirayr Sefilian, leader of the radical opposition movement 100 Years Without The Regime, and six other men accused of forming an illegal armed group with the aim of instigating mass unrest and seizing government facilities, charges they deny. In February the prosecution demanded an 11-year sentence for Sefilian and prison terms ranging from two to 4 1/2 years for his six co-defendants, one of whom denies even knowing Sefilian.

The charges against Sefilian are partly the result of his radical views. He has repeatedly criticized the current Armenian leadership and called for its replacement. But lawyers for the accused say the prosecution has not produced sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges against him or his co-defendants. The trial has been overshadowed by, and formally linked to, events that took place weeks after Sefilian's arrest in June 2016 -- namely, the seizure and occupation by an armed group with links to Sefilian of a police station in Yerevan, in the course of which three police officers were killed.

Zhirayr Sefilian in a Yerevan courtroom in June 2017
Zhirayr Sefilian in a Yerevan courtroom in June 2017

Sefilian, 50, is a Lebanese-born Armenian who participated in the 1992-94 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and was awarded one of Armenia's most prestigious military medals. He was first arrested in 2007 on a charge, which he rejected as politically motivated, of illegal possession of arms, and was jailed for 18 months.

In 2014, he established the radical opposition group Founding Parliament that launched a campaign for President Sarkisian's resignation timed to coincide with the April 2015 ceremony to mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Sefilian then cofounded, together with former presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian, the New Armenian Public Salvation Front that in late 2015 staged several poorly attended protests against the planned constitutional amendments that transformed Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. He was summoned for questioning in November 2015, and again in January 2016, and warned that he risked being jailed if he did not give up his political activity.

Sefilian was arrested again in June 2016, just weeks after he had criticized Sarkisian for ruling out any attempt to recapture a small part of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh district regained by Azerbaijan in an offensive in April. Sefilian had also announced plans to create a National Resistance Committee with the stated aim of ridding Armenia of what he termed "a treacherous government” and of "taking over as soon as possible, with the help of the people and the army, the function of governing the country.”

Sefilian's arrest served as the catalyst for the most serious challenge to political stability in recent years. On July 17, 2016, a group of 31 gunmen, most of them affiliated with Founding Parliament, stormed a police station in Yerevan's Erebuni district, killing one police officer, fatally injuring a second, and taking five more hostage to demand Sefilian's release and Sarkisian's resignation.

Sefilian's offer to try to mediate a peaceful solution to the standoff went unheeded. On July 30, a third policeman was killed in an exchange of fire. The gunmen finally surrendered the following day.

Initially, Sefilian was charged only with illegal possession of weapons and planning to stage mass unrest. Then a further charge was brought against him in November 2016 of forming one year earlier a number of illegal armed groups with a total strength of 200 to 300 men with the intention of seizing a TV tower and other government facilities in Yerevan in December 2015 and May 2016. According to the prosecution, that plot was foiled when police discovered and confiscated the arms Sefilian had purportedly amassed for that purpose. The case against Sefilian was combined with that against the Sasna Tsrer gunmen.

The trial of Sefilian and his six co-defendants opened in Yerevan in late May 2017. The defendants and their lawyers sparred repeatedly with the presiding judge over procedural issues. Only one -- Hovannes Petrosian -- testified against Sefilian, who he said ordered him to reconnoiter the TV tower. All seven men pleaded not guilty. One of them, Nerses Poghosian, twice went on hunger strike, protesting that he did not know Sefilian personally and was never affiliated with Founding Parliament.

Sefilian's lawyer Tigran Hayrapetian pointed out that the 200 to 300 members of the armed groups Sefilian has been accused of setting up have not been identified and apprehended, and that the prosecution failed to explain why, given that those groups had allegedly been established in late 2015, Sefilian had still not implemented his plans to seize government facilities before his arrest in June 2016.

Questions also arose with regard to the weapons said to have been acquired: two Kalashnikov rifles plus 120 bullets, which would appear to be woefully inadequate for the alleged purpose. An eighth man, Artur Movsisian, who like Poghosian denied having ever met Sefilian, went on trial in the town of Hrazdan in August 2017 on a charge of storing some of those weapons – even though he was living in Russia at the time. He was found guilty and jailed for three years, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 4.

In December, following repeated verbal clashes with the presiding judge, for which he was removed from the courtroom several times for contempt of court, Sefilian denounced the trial as stage-managed on orders from the country's leadership and refused to testify. He then boycotted the next hearing, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on January 12.

Andreas Ghukasian
Andreas Ghukasian

As for the Sasna Tsrer fighters who actually occupied the Yerevan police precinct, they were divided into three groups that are currently being tried separately, as is opposition politician Andreas Ghukasian. Ghukasian, 47, went on hunger strike in early 2013 in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to persuade Armenia's Central Election Commission to bar Sarkisian from the February ballot in which he sought reelection on the grounds that his Republican Party of Armenia is "abusing its position in the state and cannot be an honest rival to other participants of the elections," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 21, 2013.

Ghukasian was arrested in late July 2016, together with three prominent Zharangutiun members, and charged with inciting to "mass disturbances” the more than 1,000 people who congregated close to the besieged police station in a mark of support for the Sasna Tsrer gunmen's demands. Ghukasian has consistently rejected that charge as politically motivated. In November 2017, a witness at his trial claimed that Ghukasian urged protesters to throw stones at police, and that he intended to join Sasna Tsrer. Ghukasian challenged the prosecution to prove video evidence substantiating the former allegation, which it has not done to date.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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