On April 2, the Public Defender’S Office (PDO) published an annual report on human rights and freedoms in 2019 in Georgia. The report, which was submitted to the Parliament, covers a vast array of human rights issues in Georgia, highlighting major shortcomings that emerged or persisted during the reporting period. It also assesses record of various state institutions in terms of their compliance with the recommendations and proposals made by the Public Defender.
Right to Life
On August 27, 2019, Georgian President pardoned 34 convicts, out of whom several had been convicted of premeditated murder and had not yet served most of sentence in prison, says the report. According to the Ombudsman, President’s decision sparked “legitimate” public protest. The PDO called on the head of state to present detailed justification for issuing the said presidential pardons, but it has not been provided yet, reads the report. According to the Ombudsman, granting pardons is entirely within the President’s discretion, but the process must comply with “the procedural aspect of the right to life” warranted by the European Convention on Human Rights. The President acted with “unreasonable leniency” when pardoning these convicts, which runs counter to the ECHR practice, stresses the PDO. By doing so, the report argues, the President violated the inalienable right to life.
In the report, the PDO raises concerns over the handling of Temirlan Machalikashvili’s case by law enforcement authorities and demands reopening of the inquiry, as “certain procedures of the investigation have not been duly conducted.” With regard to Ia Kerzaia’s case – a school principal who died after reportedly being subjected to pressure and discrimination on the grounds of political beliefs – investigation was launched belatedly, which hindered obtaining “crucial evidence” and obstructed the process to establish the truth. The Ombudsman provides a follow-up to Khorava Street murder probe (which also featured in the 2018 report), noting that the Prosecutor’s Office failed to comply with PDO’s recommendations and did not submit findings of the state inspection to the body.
The report sheds the light on the shortcomings of existing approaches of maintaining order and security in large penitentiary establishments. During the reporting period, representatives of the Public Defender’s Office have visited 1,728 detainees and convicts. The PDO has received 54 letters of complaint concerning ill-treatment of inmates in jails. Criminal subculture is still potent, to some extent, and exerts some influence on the prison life, notes the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman draws attention to the lack of services aimed at prisoners’ rehabilitation and scarcity of inmates’ “contact with the outer world.” The report mentions an allegedly unlawful action by the Justice Minister, who disclosed video footage depicting Ombudsman’s representatives visiting prisoners, which, the PDO claims, obstructed the work of the official body.
Abuse of Authority
The PDO assesses cases of abuse of power during the dispersal of June 20-21 protests. The investigation is mainly focused on revealing individual violations by law enforcement officers and does not address the responsibility of high-ranking officials. The Ombudsman called on the Prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation into actions of the former head of special tasks unit at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who had an obligation to prevent wrongdoings by his direct subordinates, officers of the riot police. Several office-holders, such as former Interior Minister (incumbent PM) and his deputies must have been interrogated for a second time, and recordings of police handheld transceivers were not duly analyzed by the investigation expertise.
The Public Defender calls into question the practice of administrative detention. The court does not examine legality of detention in connection with the alleged wrongdoing committed by the detainee, and detention terms need to be amended due to vague formulation, argues the report. The Ombudsman calls attention to the misuse of detention practice during June and November protests in Tbilisi. In particular, police officers were not wearing body cameras, and did not fill in detention protocols correctly, reads the report.
Freedom of Expression
While assessing the media landscape, the Ombudsman highlights attempts to interfere with the editorial independence of Adjara TV, a public broadcaster. Criminal charges have been brought with regard to owners of several independent media outlets, which raises questions about alleged persecution of critical media in the country, notes the PDO. The Ombudsman mentions the case of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani journalist kidnapped in Tbilisi and forcedly transferred to his home country, which was not thoroughly investigated by Georgian authorities.
Right to a Fair Trial
According to the PDO, Supreme Court judges have been appointed through “flawed” and “nontransparent” procedures. Legislative framework could not guarantee a fair selection process, and relevant qualification of several candidates has been brought into question, notes the report. The PDO has filed a constitutional complaint to amend the legislation that determines selection procedures. The Ombudsman slams the appointment of new Independent Inspector, an official charged with uncovering possible disciplinary misconduct committed by judges, as his selection process was allegedly plagued with numerous shortcomings. By the same token, the PDO criticizes picking of candidates for the judge membership of the High Council of Justice, a supreme body overseeing the judiciary.
Several glaring shortcomings were visible during the municipal by-elections in 2019, argues the Ombudsman. The report names various incidents including voter-buying, fomenting extreme political polarization, incitements to violence, manipulating citizens’ will and etc.
Social Rights and Equality
Despite remarkable tangible changes with respect to labor rights, occupational safety still loomed large on the national agenda as 49 individuals died as a result of occupational or work-related accidents, and 142 were injured, says the report. According to the PDO, the Labor Inspection department is under-resourced and cannot fully assume its duty.
The PDO raises concerns over “alarming” increase of femicide – 19 murder cases were recorded in 2019. The Ombudsman noted state’s reluctance to take action in order to prevent gender discrimination and provide succor to the most vulnerable groups of society. Little progress was achieved with regard to increasing women’s political participation, says the report. The state also failed to improve the state of LGBTQ rights, and state’s response to hate crimes was not effective, says the PDO. However, the PDO notes, sexual harassment was recognized as a form of civil offence in the Law on Eliminating all Forms of Discrimination, which added an additional safeguard for legal protection of vulnerable groups.
The PDO also welcomes conducting large-scale campaign against child marriage. On the other hand, the Ombdusman deplores increase in the rate of teen suicide and state’s lax response to resolve the predicament. No significant steps were taken to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, mentions the Ombudsman.
According to the report, challenges persist with respect to civil integration and protection of national minorities’s rights. Teaching the state language to the representatives of national minorities has not achieved much result, the PDO reckons. Several non-dominant religious denominations still have unresolved fiscal and property disputes with the state.
State of Human Rights in Occupied Regions
State of human rights in occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia remains “grave,” states the PDO. In 2019, temporary closures of crossing points led to deepening of the humanitarian crisis in Akhalgori district, and several individuals succumbed to death due to restricted access to medical care in Georgia proper, says the report. Enguri bridge crossing point (connecting Georgia proper with occupied Gali district of Abkhazia) was also closed intermittently. The report highlights the case of Vazha Gaprindashvili, a Georgian physician illegally detained by Tskhinvali KGB for crossing the dividing line. The PDO condemns continuous “borderization” works by Tskhinvali and Russian occupying forces.
In the meantime, the report stresses, local population has continued to suffer, as their rights to life, welfare, personal security, and freedom of movement have been restricted. The PDO notes that teaching of Georgian language in Gali and Akhalgori districts has subsided after a crackdown by Tskhinvali and Sokhumi authorities.