1998: World Report – Gerogia Review

Human Rights WatchWorld   Report 1998

Human Rights Developments

As Georgia’s human rights record has come under increasing scrutiny by the international community-notably by the United Nations and the Council of Europe-the government took steps in 1997 to indicate that it is making human rights a priority. However, Georgia’s rapidly improving image as a reforming post-Soviet country far outpaced its actual performance in human rights. In its most progressive move, the government instituted a de facto ban on capital punishment. However, most chronic problems persisted, principally torture and police abuse, refusal to prosecute war crimes committed during its civil wars in South Ossetia in 1991 and Abkhazia in 1992-94, and violations of the rights of refugees and the internally displaced. Most alarming, the government continued to obfuscate and discount many of these problems.

This year Georgia underwent its first reviews by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (October 1996) and the U.N. Human Rights Committee (March 1997). In its initial reports to these committees, the Georgian government was candid about the appalling conditions of its prisons and acknowledged the existence of serious problems like torture. However, it generally under-reported the true, horrifying scope of torture and police brutality, as documented by independent observers. For example, the Initial Report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (November 21, 1995) stated that only two cases of torture had taken place during the four-year period Georgia had been party to the Convention; nongovernmental organizations, however, documented scores of cases during that same period. Symptomatic of the government’s unwillingness to disclose the scale of the problem was its selection of Deputy Prosecutor General Anzor Baluashvili as a delegate to defend Georgia’s record before the Human Rights Committee. Extensive circumstantial evidence suggests that Mr. Baluashvili had prosecuted numerous criminal suspects who were coerced into admitting guilt through physical andpsychological abuse, and that Mr. Baluashvili condoned, if not ordered, the brutal treatment. Although the government was aware of these allegations, it has refused to investigate them. Closing its eyes to brutality within its own ranks, on the one hand, and pledging to curb torture, on the other, greatly undermined the government’s credibility during the review process.

This year Georgia took welcome steps toward the abolition of the death penalty, one of the principal preconditions to membership in the Council of Europe. On December 10, 1996, President Eduard Shevardnadze issued a moratorium on capital punishment pending the reduction from thirteen to seven of the number of capital offenses in the Georgian Criminal Code. (The amended Code entered into force on February 1, 1997.) In July, President Shevardnadze instituted a de facto ban on executions by commuting the death sentences of the existing fifty-four death-row inmates to twenty years of imprisonment.

A presidential decree issued in June, inter alia, called for punishing violations of the rights of suspects and prisoners and the broad dissemination of pertinent international human rights standards to government agencies. Although the decree may in time result in improved protections, the government’s failure to enforce the human rights protections already enshrined in Georgia’s existing legal obligations suggests the decree may have only symbolic significance.

The cease-fires that ended the fighting in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions several years ago continued to hold in 1997, despite sporadic fighting in the Abkhazian border region of Gali, which abuts Georgia. Wide scale attacks on civilians were averted this year, overwhelmingly thanks to continued mediation by the Russian Federation and the U.N. and to the continued presence of Confederation of Independent States (Russian) peacekeeping troops and of U.N. military observers in the region. However, according to UNHCR figures from December 1996, some 272,400 internally displaced persons remained unable to return safely to Abkhazia, in violation of their rights.

The government squandered another year by not moving closer to prosecuting the massive war crimes that characterized the internal conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including the murder of civilians, widespread looting, and “ethnic cleansing.” Instead, the government called on an international court to take the responsibility. This strategy allows the government publicly to condemn war crimes without punishing violators, including combatants under its own command. Although landmines remained a crippling humanitarian problem that was at least partially responsible for the inability of displaced persons to return to Abkhazia, Georgia did not sign onto the international landmine ban treaty in Oslo, Norway, in September 1997.

Such fundamental civil rights as freedom of speech and of assembly were generally well protected in Georgia. However, special forces reportedly broke up a peaceful march by the political opposition in Tbilisi on May 26, beating participants and reporters with truncheons and arbitrarily detaining several dozen, according to Iprinda News Agency. In June, a parliamentary investigating committee revealed that the Ministry of State Security had illegally tapped the telephones of Nodar Grigolashvili, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Sakartvelo (Georgia). The extent of unsanctioned government wiretapping in Georgia is unclear, but the work of the committee is encouraging, and the attention generated by its findings may help deter future abuse.

The Right to Monitor

By and large, domestic human rights activists enjoyed broad freedom to work this year. However, in at least one case of harassment, Elena Tevdoradze, chair of the parliamentary subcommittee for penitentiary reform, reportedly suffered several death threats in connection with her work on behalfof prisoners, according to Droni (Time) of September 4-6. Many activists reported that their work was stymied by lack of government cooperation in accepting and acting on their information. International monitors generally received greater government attention than did their domestic counterparts. In March, for example, Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev and his colleagues were given full access to prisoners they wished to meet, and Mr. Kovalev was able to convey his findings and recommendations to the president in person.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

As discussed above, the U.N. Committee against Torture and Human Rights Committee worked actively this year to evaluate Georgia’s human rights record and urge improved compliance with international standards. The United Nations continued to mediate a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict and to secure the safe return of refugees and displaced persons from that region; on both counts, its efforts were fruitless. Its most positive contributions to the human rights situation there appeared to be extending the mandate for the Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMiG) and the posting of a human rights representative based in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Under the terms of a joint agreement, an OSCE representative is also monitoring the situation in the field. To date, however, there was no noticeable improvement in reporting or prosecuting human rights violations.

Council of Europe

Since July 14, 1996, when Georgia applied to the Council of Europe to upgrade its status from special guest to full member, the Council worked to identify Georgia’s human rights problems and craft recommendations for achieving adequate compliance with the Council’s standards. Credit for Georgia’s rapid progress toward a de jure moratorium on the death penalty this year was due overwhelmingly to the Council’s membership review process. In light of Georgia’s overall human rights record, one hopes the Council of Europe will issue rigorous recommendations for compliance with European Convention human rights standards and, should Georgia accede to the Council, that it will enforce them strictly.

Full report: www.hrw.org/legacy/worldreport/Table.htm

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