President Meets Rustavi 2 TV Ex-Owner Litigating to Reclaim Broadcaster

President Giorgi Margvelashvili met on Tuesday Kibar Khalvashi, a businessman and a former owner of Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 TV, whose lawsuit, aimed at reclaiming his shares in the most-watched Georgian broadcaster sparked allegations that government is trying to take over television channel critical Georgian Dream ruling coalition policies.

Khalvashi, who owned Rustavi 2 TV in 2004-2006 as long as he and his close associate, then defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, were on good terms with then president Mikheil Saakashvili, told journalists after the meeting with President Margvelashvili that they had “a lengthy conversation”.

“I thanked the President for accepting my request for a meeting. I was able to tell him everything, as well as explained legal aspects of the matter. We asked him to monitor court case because the court is facing a huge pressure from the [United] National Movement,” Khalvashi said, referring to UNM opposition party, which along with Rustavi 2 TV and other government critics, claim that the judge, adjudicating Khalvashi’s lawsuit, is under the control of the government and specifically ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili.

“There is an attempt to influence on judge’s verdict and therefore we asked him [President Margvelashvili] to send his representative at court [hearings]. We explained legal aspects of the case, but he told us that he’s not a legal expert and therefore he cannot make any conclusion and that he has to listen to another party [in the dispute] as well,” Khalvashi said.

In his lawsuit Khalvashi claims that he had to sell his shares in Rustavi 2 TV over nine years ago because he was pressured and intimidated by then leadership of the country.

Khalvashi claims that during a meeting with then President Mikheil Saakashvili on November 16, 2006 the latter gave him an “ultimatum to give up the television channel in order to avoid problems for me and my family.”

Lawyers representing Rustavi 2 TV and its current owners say there is not a single piece of evidence in Khalvashi’s lawsuit that would substantiate his claims that he was coerced into agreeing on sale of his shares.

Respondents also argue that current owners of 91% shares of Rustavi 2 TV – Levan Karamanishvili and Giorgi Karamanishvili, who are believed to be ex-President Saakashvili’s associates, are bona fide holders of the broadcaster.

After Khalvashi sold his shares in Rustavi 2 TV and before Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili became the shareholders, the ownership of the broadcaster changed for multiple times; for years majority of shares was owned by offshore registered companies with beneficiary owners unknown. Khalvashi claims that Saakashvili controls the broadcaster through Giorgi and Levan Karamanishvili, who, he says, are nominal shareholders. Rustavi 2 TV lawyers wanted to involve in the ongoing litigation as a third party previous shareholders of the Rustavi 2 from which current owners bought shares, but the motion was rejected by the judge.

The ongoing court hearing into Khalvashi’s lawsuit is expected to resume on October 28.

The meeting between the President and Rustavi 2 TV ex-owner came less than a week after Margvelashvili called on October 22 on the judge, adjudicating broadcaster’s ownership dispute, “not to take hasty decision”. A day before this statement by the President, Rustavi 2 TV head, Nika Gvaramia, claimed that the judge was going to deliver the verdict in favor of Khalvashi, accompanied by an order on an immediate enforcement of the decision, on October 22. But judge Tamaz Urtmelidze said on October 22 that he would require “at least several days” to deliver a final verdict after hearing of the case on its merits is over.

President’s statement was hailed by the opposition parties, but criticized by ruling Georgian Dream ruling coalition, as well as by ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili as a pressure on the judiciary.

Kakha Kozhoridze, president’s adviser for human rights and legal affairs, who was also present at the meeting between President Margvelashvili and Kibar Khalvashi, said that the latter spoke about the details of his lawsuit.

“We of course cannot go into details of legal aspects of the case… This is the case draws high public interest and will continue follow it closely,” Kozhoridze said.

“The only assistance that the President has pledged to Kibar Khalvashi is that he will spare no effort to contribute creation of conditions wherein independent judiciary will be able to take its decision in a calm environment,” he said.

“I believe that the President at this stage managed to contribute significantly in this process and I think that if we compare today’s situation to the one that was five days ago, situation now is much calmer, and the court can take its decision in much better condition now,” President’s adviser said.

Since October 22 the President held series of consultations with political parties, civil society and media representatives, among them was Rustavi 2 TV head; Margvelashvili also met parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili and head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, as well as Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili.

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