By Oliko Shermadini, Transparency International Georgia
When corruption is disguised as a legal procedure, it can often be difficult for ordinary citizens to fight back. But legal procedures can also be used to win the day. This is the story of how Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre in Georgia helped a group of villagers win a legal battle against local authorities who had essentially stolen their land.
On a piece of land about the size of 18 football pitches on the edge of the small village of Didi Lilo just outside Georgia’s capital Tblisi aggressive scavenger birds swoop down on piles of stinking refuse. Parents keep their children indoors because the birds are so dangerous and the smell so noxious.
For generations a group of 17 local tenant farmers grew wheat on this land. It helped them through bad economic times, when food was scarce following the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the civil unrest. “We milled the wheat into flour and baked bread for our family and we used the grain to feed our chickens and livestock,” said Marine Tsopurishvili, one of the villagers (pictured). “It helped us survive as there was no other work around.”
Marine Tsopurishvili (second from left) stands with villagers in front of landfill.
When the rights to the land came up for auction in 2006, the 17 villagers joined forces to buy it. Four years later when they tried to register the land on a new electronic cadastral map they found they couldn’t: it was listed as state property.
It was during a fallow year, when the land was left uncultivated that the fences went up and the garbage started pouring in. That’s also when the villagers started their fight to get the land back. They wrote letters and produced ownership evidence but were continually stonewalled. During the court proceedings, representatives from the Public Registry, Tbilisi City Hall, the ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development and the group that operates the landfill all argued that because the property was not registered as belonging to the villagers on the electronic map it was state land.
Transparency International Georgia operates an Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre for citizens who find themselves beaten back by a system they cannot understand. When one of the Didi Lilo villagers showed us their file, we realized that the authorities, for whatever reason, were acting in bad faith.
Corruption is the defined by Transparency International as the misuse of entrusted power for personal gain. We did not try to argue that this was a case of corruption because it was clear that we could win on procedural arguments.
During court proceedings, representatives of the state claimed that at the time of registering their ownership of the land, the villagers had not registered an electronic cadastral map, and that the paper version of this document did not show any overlap between the landfill area and the land owned by the citizens.
According to Georgian legislation, however, property rights may not be restricted on the grounds that the cadastral map has been registered as a paper document. The majority of land registered before 2010 had been registered this way.
In land dispute cases, the Public Register is obligated to take into account all the data available. The villagers had done everything by the book: they had registered the land, provided a privatization plan and relevant cadastral information that clearly shows its location.
The state claimed that the plot overlapped with state land but refused to provide the 2010 maps to prove this. In court we argued that that state bodies had acted in agreement to intentionally, illegally and without compensation seize a piece of land from the rightful owners. The state was happy to take the villagers’ money in 2006; and just as happy to doctor the system and seize it back in 2010.
In 2014, the Georgian Public Defender had also recommended the Public Registry reconsider its decision, but to no avail. We used the Public Defender’s report as evidence in court.
The dispute lasted for 3 years but ended on March 22, 2017, when Tbilisi City Court (court of first instance) granted our claim and recognised the ownership rights of the villagers. The court decision granted our clients’ requests for registration.
The next step is to get compensation. The land is now unfit for agriculture. According to a private audit estimate, the disputed piece of land had a market value of GEL 1.3 million (US$536,103) prior to its seizure. We plan to demand compensation for damages, which will include the above market value as well as compensation for damage incurred as a result of a 10 year property rights violation period.
The state can of course appeal the decision but we will be ready to continue the fight. The villagers of Didi Lilo may not have agricultural land anymore but they are clearly entitled to compensation for the illegal seizure.
Oliko Shermadini started working at Transparency International Georgia as an intern in 2012. Since then she has been involved in different TI Georgia projects, including working at the Advocacy and Legal Advice Center.