Georgia in U.S. Human Rights Report 2019

On March 11, the U.S. State Department released the 2019 report on human rights in Georgia, which is part of the 44th country reports on human rights practices compiled annually. The report discusses at length a broad range of issues plaguing Georgia, including problems with the independence of the judiciary and investigations that are widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; inappropriate police force against journalists; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly; unlawful/arbitrary deprivation of life and arbitrary detentions  by the Russian-backed authorities in occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, as well as crimes involving violence against LGBTI people.

Political Freedom and Civil Liberties

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, reads the report. The State Department assessed government’s observance of these prohibitions as “uneven.” The report draws on testimonies by local Georgian NGOs that detentions of some individuals in connection with June 20-21 protests were “politically motivated.” The report cites an address by 16 civil society organizations in which they slammed an arbitrary detention of Irakli Okruashvili, leader of the opposition party Victorious Georgia.

The State Department brings into question handling of peaceful protests by the police in the given period. During the dispersal of June 20 protests, due to the “disproportionate and excessive” use of force by law enforcement officers, protesters suffered serious injuries, including two who lost an eye, reads the report. It cites the report by the Human Rights Center, a local NGO, according to which the state remained reluctant to hold officers who targeted nonviolent protesters accountable, which indicated “a lack of political will by state officials to depoliticize law enforcement and prevent the use of “excessive” police force.”

The report discusses the controversy around the criminal case against the cofounders of TBC Bank, Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, who were charged with money laundering in 2008 financial dealings. The State Department quotes a statement made jointly by a group of 20 local NGOs, that charges against the businessmen-turned-politicians were “politically motivated.”

The State Department cites concerns raised by Georgian CSOs over indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. As stated in the report, judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary over the course of 2019. The report singles out the nomination of 10 controversial candidates to the Supreme Court by the High Council of Justice, a body overseeing the judiciary in Georgia. The Council, the report reckons, granted a lifetime lower-court appointment to Levan Murusidze, who had been alleged of corruption. The State Department finds fault with nontransparent nature of the selection process, which involved interviews with the nominees criticized as “highly dysfunctional and unprofessional” by the OSCE/ODIHR.

Freedom of the Press

Independent media remained very active and expressed a wide variety of views, notes the State Department. However, adds the report, NGOs continued to criticize the “close relationship” between the heads of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, and GPB’s “editorial bias” in favor of the ruling party.

According to the report, concerns persisted with regard to government interference with some media outlets as well. It mentions Adjara Public Broadcaster (Adjara TV and Radio Company) as an example, whose director was reportedly dismissed to hamper TV’s editorial independence. The report further elaborates that, in December, journalists protested against the new director, claiming he was interfering in their work and attempting to influence the station’s editorial policy.

The report highlights ECHR’s July 18 ruling which granted ownership rights of Rustavi 2 TV, pro-opposition TV channel, to a former owner Kibar Khalvashi. Some media experts feared a possible shift in Rustavi 2’s editorial bias that may restrict the freedom of the overall media landscape, says the report. It also mentions subsequent questioning of Rustavi 2’s former director general Nika Gvaramia by the Prosecutor’s Office with regard to the station’s financial deals back to 2015.

The report further notes that Vakhtang Tsereteli, owner of an independent media outlet TV Pirveli, complained of government exerting undue pressure by charging his father Avtandil Tsereteli with money laundering in the TBC Bank case.

Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Regions of Georgia

In 2019, Russian occupying forces and Moscow-backed authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to limit the freedom of internal movement, stresses the report. During the year only holders of new Abkhaz “passports” and temporary identification documents issued by Sokhumi were allowed to pass the crossing point to visit Abkhazia. The State Department draws attention to the fact that Abkhaz authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia. Inability to cross the dividing line to access Georgia proper sometimes led to fatal results, says the report, as in the case of Margo Martiashvili, a resident of Akhalgori in Russian-occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, who died following a stroke. She was delivered to a hospital in Tskhinvali, and despite her family’s demand, was not allowed to be transferred to Tbilisi.

The State Department calls attention to frequent reports of detentions of Georgians along the dividing lines of both Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia. On November 15, Tskhinvali authorities sentenced Georgian physician Vazha Gaprindashvili to two months of pretrial detention after arresting him for allegedly “illegally” crossing the dividing line, says the report. It also mentions detention of four individuals on December 7 under similar circumstances. One minor was released on the same day, adds the report, while the remaining three were set free after paying a “fine” to Tskhinvali authorities.

Moscow-backed authorities continued to expand fencing and erecting physical barriers along the dividing line between Tskhinvali region and Georgia proper, notes the State Department. As a result, several residents lost access to their property and were cut off from critical infrastructure. According to the report, in September, Tskhinvali closed all but one crossing point on the grounds of “national security.” This “undermined livelihoods and prevented local residents from getting food, supplies and medicine,” remarks the report on the authority of the co-chairs of the Geneva international discussions.

The State Department raises the issue of ethnic Georgians residing in Abkhazia, who lack fundamental rights and confront onerous registration requirements threatening their continued status. Dwellers of the Gali district were stripped of rights to vote, purchase property, and access to education in their mother tongue.

Women, Minority Groups and Labor Rights

Domestic and other violence against women remained a significant problem, which the government took several steps to combat, notes the report. It cites adoption of amendments to the Law on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that “eliminated shortcomings in the law and promoted a prevention-oriented approach to better correct abusers’ behavior and reduce recidivism.” As stated by the local NGOs, public awareness of legal remedies has grown, leading to the quadrupling of reported cases of domestic violence in recent years. Furthermore, law enforcement officials and prosecutors in Tbilisi showed “improved professionalism” in handling domestic violence crimes.

The report notes that kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and ethnic minority communities, but it was relatively rare. It highlights one incident in Azerbaijani-majority city of Gardabani, where a youth-led social campaign “Salam” was kicked off to stand up to child marriage and kidnapping practices.

The State department calls attention to the case of Vitali Safarov, a civic activist of Jewish and Yazidi descent, who was murdered by members of a neo-Nazi group in 2018. On June 27, Tbilisi City Court convicted the two men of killing Safarov but dismissed qualifying the murder as a hate crime, notes the report.

The report, drawing on the Public Defender’s Office, states that LGBTI individuals continued to experience systemic violence, oppression, abuse, intolerance and discrimination. The government was unable to tackle violence against LGBTI individuals in the families or in public spaces, which remained a “serious problem.” Meanwhile, adds the report, businessman Levan Vasadze threatened to create patrol to attack members of the LGBTI community and insisted the government to repeal the anti-discrimination legislation. LGBTI activists were hindered to host a “pride week” event due to the unwillingness of the Ministry of Interior Affairs to protect them from the “opponents of LGBTI rights.”

The government did not effectively enforce laws that provide for workers’ freedom of association and prohibit anti-union discrimination, says the report. It notes that the Labor inspectorate and mediation services were “unable to enforce collective bargaining agreements or provide government oversight of employers’ compliance with labor laws.” The State Department mentions that Georgian workers generally exercised their right to strike in accordance with the law but at times faced management retribution.

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