The Court Rules in Favor of Ucha Mamatsashvili in Defamation Lawsuit
On August 5, Judge Gocha Didava from the Chamber for Civil Cases at the Tbilisi City Court partially satisfied Ucha Mamatsashvili's lawsuit against the NPO Anti-Corruption Movement and its representatives, Mr. Vaso Urushadze and Mr. Lasha Parulava.
In the lawsuit, Bidzina Ivanishvili's cousin challenged the statements made by the representatives of the non-governmental organization - Anti-Corruption Movement. The defendants had claimed Mr. Mamatsashvili was allegedly involved in a transnational crime (also known as the "call centers" case). They also claimed that allegedly, he was behind the price increase in Georgia’s imported electricity. The plaintiff believed these statements were defamatory. He asked the court for moral damages (GEL 150,000) and a rebuttal of the story via media.
The representatives of the respondent non-governmental organization argued that their statements were based on a conclusion from their research activities. The research involved information requests and material discoveries in this process. Their statements were meant as a contribution to the public debate as the underlying issue was of public interest. It was their intention to inform relevant local and international bodies and alert them of the need to launch an investigation into alleged crimes.
Unfortunately, the court did not share the defendant's position. The judge agreed with the plaintiff and noted that Ucha Mamatsashvili's honor, dignity, and business reputation were harmed by the statements made by the non-governmental organization. Therefore, the judge ordered each defendant to pay compensation for moral damages (GEL 5,000 GEL each).
In addition, the hearings illuminated the following key problematic aspects of the case:
The judge demonstrated a special interest in Bidzina Ivanishvili's cousin’s claim: unlike the general, longstanding practice established in the court to delay hearings, the judge considered the case extraordinarily quickly and within a tight time frame (in 4 months after the claim was submitted);
The judge approved those witnesses who were known beforehand that would testify in Mamatsashvili’s favor (including Zurab Noghaideli, Davit Narmania and Davit Thvalabeishvili). Also, the judge refused to interview those witnesses who could provide the court with information about the persons involved in the transnational crime and the alleged corruption scheme (including Giorgi Kobulia, Levan Khabeishvili, and Nika Gvaramia).
The defendant had requested to dismiss Mr. Parulava and Mr. Urushadze as irrelevant defendants in the case, based on the argument that they made statements not in the capacity of private individuals but as the representatives of a non-governmental organization. Still, the judge did not satisfy the party's petition and found the defendants responsible not only as representatives of the organization but also as private individuals;
Although the court did not order the defendants to pay the full amount of requested moral damages, based on the practice of common courts, the compensation of moral damages in the amount of 5,000 GEL for each defendant is disproportionately large and not reasonable;
Although the TV companies were not involved in the litigation and did not represent any party, they were still ordered by the court to allocate airtime to the defendants. Such practice could be considered as interference within media editorial policy;
The court did not consider the dangers such decisions can have. The court also did not focus on the fact that the lawsuit was filed by the cousin of the most influential person in the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili. As a well-known business executive, Mamatsashvili has a more elevated obligation than most to tolerate public scrutiny.
It is also worth noting that those connected to the authorities continue to make the freedom of speech and expression a subject of litigation, transforming the freedom of speech and expression into a subject of court trials and, in this case, endangering the work of a CSO.
Critical statements against the authorities and other influential persons related to these authorities often become the catalysts of legal disputes. This trend is an abuse of the litigation mechanism and aims to illegally restrict freedom of speech and expression through intimidation of civil society (SLAPP lawsuits). Considering the tendency of government representatives to file baseless lawsuits, the above decision creates an alarming precedent since, now, there is an expectation that it will facilitate the filing of such lawsuits in court. This practice is aimed at hindering the work of human rights defenders. The court’s decision poses yet another threat to Georgia’s democratic development, as it has a "chilling effect" on the freedom of speech and expression in the country.
GDI is a legal representative of the Anti-Corruption Movement and its representatives, Mr. Vaso Urushadze and Mr. Lasha Parulava. Legal aid was made possible with the financial support of the USAID Rule of Law Program.
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