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Georgian lawyers face government harassment

Lawyers in Georgia claim they can no longer work unhindered for fear of risking harassment, or even imprisonment, from the government, simply for trying to protect their clients.
­Being a lawyer in Georgia is not easy these days, as Mamuka Nozadze knows all too well. He was a successful practicing lawyer but, he says, he fell foul of government pressure and found himself locked up."They wanted to imprison me and they did so,” Nozadze says. “I spent two years and seven months behind bars.”Nozadze says he was asked to force his clients to plead guilty.“When I didn't agree to co-operate, they found a man of straw, a person detained for stealing a mobile phone, and sent him to my office to take me on as his lawyer,” Nozadze recalls. “The prosecution then offered him a plea bargain. Either he is sentenced to prison, or testifies against me in court, saying that he paid me $170 for legal consultation, and I swindled him.”It is estimated that Georgia currently has around 200 lawyers either in prison or awaiting sentencing, mostly on fraud charges.Government critics say the real reason they are locked up is because they refused to make deals with prosecutors.“Those lawyers who do not do the will of the authorities, do not work on plea bargains and instead conduct a real legal defense of their clients are considered enemies of the state,” says lawyer Gela Nikoleishvili. The state, however, does not agree. In his end of year statement, Constantine Kublashvili, the Supreme Court Chairman, said that justice in Georgia was becoming more trusted, and deservedly so.  “Forty-two per cent more civil cases were brought this last year compared to 2009,” Kublashvili said. “This data directly and indirectly points at a greater trust of the population in the judicial system. And a very small number of cases were appealed to the highest judicial authority this last year. In civil cases 11 per cent, and in criminal cases 14 per cent. This proves that our judiciary is highly skilled and impartial.”It is not enough for Eka Baselia, a lawyer who quit her practice when she claims she grew fed up of the country's legal system attacking its own lawyers.“Saakshvilli and his prosecutors try to influence advocacy and when they fail, they arrest or discriminate against those who don't co-operate,” Beselia says. “Detainees are simply told not to hire certain lawyers under threat of heavier sentences. I simply realized that my job became a lie. It was my protest, when I stopped law practice three years ago.”As a result, not only do lawyers lose their freedom, but Georgians lose their chance of a fair trial.