Domestic and politically motivated violence; increased societal intolerance against minority groups, including hate speech and interference with religious worship; shortcomings in the legal system and inappropriate use of pretrial detention have been identified as the most important human rights problems in Georgia last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s annual report.
In other problems the annual human rights report, released on June 25 and covering developments of 2014, notes “abuse by law enforcement officials; substandard prison conditions; allegations of political influence in the administration of justice; allegations of improper electronic surveillance; pressure on opposition figures to withdraw from local elections; and substandard living conditions for internally displaced persons (IDPs).”
The report, which relies heavily on reports from the Georgian Public Defender and local NGOs, says that despite of progress since the 2012, complains about abuse by penitentiary officials continued.
It says that although the government took steps to foster accountability, “there were some reports that security force members committed abuses with impunity”
“NGOs and the public defender maintained the incidence of police abuse was higher than the number of cases investigated by the prosecutor general and that failure to conduct systematic investigations and pursue convictions of all alleged abusers contributed to a culture of impunity,” reads the report.
Unlike previous reports, which were noting problem of “external and internal influence on the judiciary”, the recent one says that “there were some indications of increased judicial independence.” It, however, also says that “challenges” still remained in this regard.
Citing NGO coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, the report says that the “key challenges to judicial independence included flawed judicial selection processes for Supreme Court justices and the chief justice and unclear procedures for disciplining judges.” It also notes criticism voiced by the civil society groups of a three-year probationary period for new judges before their appointment for life.
“Judges typically applied higher standards to requests from prosecutors to institute wiretaps, search residences, and detain defendants before trial in cases involving former government administration officials,” reads the report.
But on pretrial detention, the report, citing concerns of local court monitors, says that prosecution uses “legislative loopholes” to prolong nine-month limitation of pretrial detention.
“Each new set of charges restarts a nine-month clock, and prosecutors often waited to file new charges until the pretrial detention clock was about to expire on the original charges,” reads the report.
When original nine-month pretrial detention for former Tbilisi mayor and one of opposition UNM party leaders Gigi Ugulava was nearing its end, prosecutors re-qualified in March, 2015 one of the criminal charges against him in order to remand him in custody. Although this case was not included in the report, as it covers developments of last year, the U.S. embassy said in March that prosecution’s move appeared to be an “effort to subvert the nine-month limit on pretrial detention.”
Ugulava has appealed the Constitutional Court seeking repealing of legislative clauses, which he argues contradicts the constitution, which sets nine months as a maximums term for pretrial detention.
On Ugulava’s original pretrial detention last year, the report mentions assessments of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Transparency International Georgia, which said that former Tbilisi mayor’s arrest lacked proper justification and contradicted requirements prescribed under the law. Ugulava at the time was UNM’s campaign manager for the June, 2014 local elections.
The report says that throughout the pre-election campaign ahead of municipal polls, “there were reports of aggression from individuals targeting members of the UNM opposition and insufficient protection of the freedom of association by security officials.”
It also says that the in first half of 2014 “opposition party activists were physically attacked in several cities throughout the country”; it mentions cases of attacks on UNM MP Nugzar Tsiklauri and one of UNM senior figures Zurab Tchiaberashvili. The report also mentions arrest of former head of the Khoni municipality and his former deputy. “NGOs noted the detention of active members of the opposition UNM party before the June local elections for crimes allegedly committed several years previously raised questions about the motives for the arrests,” reads the report.
In the section of “arbitrary arrest”, the report mentions detention of five former MoD and general staff officials in late October, which led to Free Democrats party quitting the GD ruling coalition. The report notes that seven NGOs at the time said it was “difficult to identify the signs of a crime at this stage” in the case. Five detainees were released from pretrial detention last week; trial into the case, which involves charges of alleged misspending, is still ongoing.
According to the report, the major human rights problems that caused tension between the government and NGOs last year were “insufficient oversight of surveillance, mistreatment of prisoners, and dismissals for alleged political motivations.”
On surveillance, the report notes legislative amendments, which were adopted by the Parliament last year.
Although the report notes that NGOs “criticized the law for not providing adequate protection of civil liberties,” it also describe those amendments as providing “additional checks on the Ministry of Internal Affairs by requiring both court approval and authorization of the personal data protection inspector for access to information obtained through surveillance.”
Opponents of the legislation, which has also been taken to the Constitutional Court, say that as long as the Interior Ministry maintains direct access to telecom operators’ networks, it can easily circumvent personal data protection inspector and launch unlawful surveillance.
The report says that “domestic and other violence against women remained a significant problem.”
“In most of the domestic violence cases addressed to the public defender, police limited their response to issuing verbal warnings and initiating preventive supervision, which did not provide actual protection from a recurrent abuse,” reads the report.
It also says, citing data from the Interior Ministry, that 636 investigations into domestic violence crimes were launched as of September, 2014, up from 399 in 2013. But NGOs believe cases of domestic violence were underreported.
According to the report in 2014 there were several instances of discrimination against minority communities. It mentions the case when a group of locals in Kobuleti nailed pig’s head to the front door of a planned Muslim school.
“NGOs criticized the government for failing to carry out effective investigations in previous cases motivated by religious hatred,” it says.
The report says that “societal prejudices against LGBT persons remained strong.”
“The Media Development Foundation noted numerous homophobic statements issued by high-level officials, politicians from various political parties, and media outlets, most frequently in the context of the antidiscrimination law”, which was passed by the Parliament last year, says the report.