We invite you to read the interview with a unique person – Zaza Khatiashvili, past president of the Georgian Bar Association,
recognized throughout the world human rights defender and – in particular – defender of the independence of legal profession and individual lawyers, Winner of the CCBE Human Rights Award, great friend of the European Association of Lawyers (AEA-EAL) and speaker on its international Conference in Almaty (2018), where he shared information on how to defend lawyers’ rights.
You were not government’s favourite candidate for the post of the Chairman of the Georgian Bar Association (GBA) in 2009?
On December 27, 2009, I became the President of the bar association. Saakashvili’s government has interfered in the elections because they did not want a human rights defender to become the chairman of the bar. Lawyers were threatened by the government by financial police and were promised a cash. They were forced to vote against me. Before the second round, when Saakashvili’s government realized that I was winning, they offered me one million euros on the condition that I would refuse my post. I immediately made a statement. When I became the chairman of the bar, I wrote to the leaders of the “Big 8” that I was offered one million euros from the Georgian government. I demanded from the President of the European Union to recognize the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili guilty for the persecution of lawyers.
How was a situation of lawyers in Georgia, at the beginning of your term of office?
When I became the chairman of the bar association I found that bar was ruined, financially indebted, no ethics committee functioning, there was no bar training centre and most importantly 111 lawyers were imprisoned. The first thing I did was setting up a bar committee and started investigation of cases of imprisoned lawyers to find out that there was an institutional persecution of Georgian lawyers by the Saakashvili regime. Nearly 4% of the then current 3,500 lawyers were in prison, which was not the case in any other country!
How have you and your colleagues been fighting for lawyers’ rights? Which methods were the most effective?
I asked all lawyers to call me any time when their activities were restricted.. Lawyers knew that their chairman was with them and they became militant. In consequence the authorities were forced to release all illegally detained lawyers and our activities became safe.
In Georgia and in the European countries, during my time as the chairman of the bar, I held about 50 rallies to protect rights of lawyers. I went to a lawyer several times because of a violation of his rights and I always achieved the result. Finally, the government was forced to back down. There were times when I thought I would not come back home alive from manifestation, hunger and solidarity strikes, intervention or public protests but I never stepped back.
When the government changed in Georgia, I helped two lawyers to be recognized as a political prisoner by the Parliament of Georgia and they were released. It was a real confirmation of my struggle. When I was elected for the second time in 2013, Saakashvili’s government no longer ruled Georgia. Under the new government, there was also a lot of pressure on lawyers, but not on the scale of the Saakashvili regime.
In 2014, one of the most influential police chiefs physically assaulted Public Advocate Giorgi Mdinaradze. I held a briefing in a few minutes and demanded an arrest for the chief of police within 48 hours on the condition of calling lawyers’ strike by not going to the court.. The authorities were so frightened that the police chief was arrested within 24 hours. If I had not started the lawyers’ strike, no one would have punished the police chief. He was sentenced to 5 years and is still in prison.
After my hunger strike in Strasbourg, the Georgian government was forced to agree with the Georgian Bar Association’s opinion on nomination of a judge to the European Court of Human Rights. This event made the bar association a great and accountable force.
Under the new government, through struggle, rallies, and hunger strikes, we achieved legislative changes and made it a criminal offence to interfere in work of a lawyer and to violate lawyer’s independence.
How did your international cooperation look like?
I wrote the letter to the CCBE (Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe) on the persecution of lawyers, attending every meeting of the PECO Committee, where for the first time in several years, the persecution of Georgian lawyers was discussed. I invited the International Lawyer Observatory to Georgia. They investigated facts of persecution of lawyers.. Three French lawyers were coming every six months and published shocking reports on our persecution.. According to the International Law Observatory, the legal profession in Georgia was recognized as a field of risk, and the unprecedented persecution of lawyers by the authorities proved to be a major crush to Saakashvili’s government. I did not leave facts of restrictions of lawyers without response.
The European Union and the Council of Europe, the Embassy of the United States of America in Georgia helped me a lot. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammerberg has made a report on the persecution of Georgian lawyers, which is why President Saakashvili did not allow him to enter Georgia.
What is your advice for bars in other countries fighting for lawyers’ rights?
My advice would be that the first and foremost task of bar associations should be to protect rights of lawyers. The government (especially the former socialist states) should ‘not have the power to restrict rights of lawyers. The state should have a strong and well-protected bar.
As the bar association turns a blind eye to a restriction of one minor right of a lawyer, the government will destroy the corps of lawyers in that country.
The government in the last years of my term of office was forced to agree with our bar on any legislative decision if it was connected with the legal profession, which I achieved through great struggle. If the chairman of the bar association does not fight to strengthen the rights of lawyers, the development of the bar association in that country is going at a very slow pace.
What is the situation of Georgian lawyers nowadays?
When I left the presidency of the bar after 8 years in power, none of the lawyers were in prison and that was my great victory. Today, the Georgian Bar Association is the strongest and most independent institution. I urge all lawyers to fight for our rights!
Lawyers of the Georgian Bar Association have become protected in the process of professional activity. We do not allow prosecutors to question lawyers on their activity. A very strong ethics committee was set up to punish unscrupulous lawyers. I set up a training centre, established a system of continuing legal education that became mandatory for all lawyers.
When I hear about persecution of lawyers in any country, I immediately hold a protest in Georgia in front of the embassies of the country where a lawyer has been persecuted. So we saved the arrest of some of our colleagues from Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
Maria Slazak, the current president of the European Association of Lawyers (AEA-EAL), has been helping Georgian lawyers a lot.
I am very proud that today the Georgian Bar Association is one of the most successful associations in Europe.