Amnesty International, a London-based international human rights organization stated in its statement of April 8 that Moscow-backed authorities in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia “must stop any “criminal” proceedings against two local outspoken journalists, Tamara Mearakishvili and Irina Kelekhsaeva.”
The watchdog said Tskhinvali authorities “should refrain from using any other retaliatory measures against these and any of their critics and ensure that any person in South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region is able to exercise their right to freedom of expression, without harassment, intimidation, risk to personal freedom and fear of any reprisals.”
The Case of Mearakishvili
Tamara Mearakishvili is an ethnic Georgian journalist in Akhalgori, ethnic Georgian majority district in Tskhinvali region. She “has been outspoken on various social and economic problems that her community is facing and has often criticised the de facto authorities on issues of corruption, human rights and governance,” noted Amnesty.
According to the watchdog, Tskhinvali authorities “charged” Mearakishvili with the crime of defamation in 2017. She was then detained and accused of the “crime” of defaming the ruling party of the region. The pretext was her comments published online by Ekho Kavkaza in April 2017. In her comments, Mearakishvili alleged political favoritism and exploitative practices by the ruling party members in Akhalgori including harassment of personnel at the local hospital.
Mearakishvili was also accused of the acquisition and use of false documents in 2018. Namely, Tskhinvali authorities accused her of “illegally obtaining the citizenship of South Ossetia”, by means of acquiring and using false documents, and in particular not disclosing to the region’s authorities that she still possessed Georgian citizenship.
Amnesty International said “effective criminalisation of possessing Georgian citizenship in the territory of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region violates international human rights law.”
In 2019, Mearakishvili’s case was heard at a local court, which acquitted her of all charges. However, in January 2020, the region’s “supreme court” overturned her acquittal on charges of acquisition and use of false documents and returned the case to the first instance court for retrial. Besides, in January 2020 Tskhinvali’s top court upheld her acquittal on the charges on defamation, however, the other charges against Mearakishvili are still open.
Amnesty said “there are no grounds for criminal proceedings against Tamara Mearakishvili, and the de facto authorities’ sole purpose is to silence her.”
The case of Irina Kelekhsaeva
Kelekhsaeva is a journalist in the town of Tskhinvali working for Ekho Kavkaza, a project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to Amnesty International, in December 2019, the region’s “minister of justice” sued Kelekhsaeva for defamation for her publication on the worsening conditions and ill-treatment in prisons in Tskhinvali Region, including beatings of inmates that led to a hunger strike.
Amnesty said that as the head of the region’s “justice ministry,” which is in charge of the penitentiary system, Tskhinvali ”justice minister” alleged that Kelekhsaeva was disseminating defamatory information about her.
In February 2020, a local judge looked into the case and decided that Tskhinvali’s prosecutor general’s office should determine whether to initiate criminal processing against Irina Kelekhsaeva under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. If found guilty, Kelekhsaeva may face a fine up to USD 6,000.
International human rights organization said Tskhinvali authorities must immediately drop all “charges” against Mearakishvili and Kelekhsaeva and “ensure that they can freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and perform their professional duties as journalists.”
Amnesty International regretted that freedom of expression is suppressed in the Moscow-backed region and that “the climate of fear and intimidation is widespread.”
The rights watchdog said it has received “anecdotal evidence of the de facto authorities contacting private individuals who have shared a critical article on Facebook or even liked a critical post.”
“There have also been reports that the de facto [Tskhinvali] authorities have been harassing university teachers in the region, threatening them with dismissals if they dare to criticise the authorities,” added Amnesty International.