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HRW Report Recaps Georgia’s Tumultuous 2021

The Human Rights Watch, an international human rights monitoring organization, issued on January 13 its annual World Report, which includes a chapter summarizing the tumultuous human rights-related developments of 2021 in Georgia.

The chapter on Georgia lays out various concerns, including lack of accountability for law enforcement abuses, attacks against journalists, declining media freedom, violence against LGBT+ people, police interference in freedom of assembly, the institutionalization of children and threats to labor safety.

The report reads that in 2021 “impunity for abuses by law enforcement remained a persistent problem,” citing Public Defender’s data that it received 133 complaints of mistreatment by prison staff or police. The investigations are still ongoing, launched after the Ombudsperson petitioned the State Inspector’s Office to examine the issue, according to the document.

The HRW also highlights various controversial events of February 2021, when police detained 20 activists in a skirmish that followed a seizure of a protest tent; raided United National Movement headquarters to detain party chair, Nika Melia, apprehended 21 people during the operation on disobedience charges and allegedly used tear gas.

It cites an assessment by the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a local watchdog, which slammed police for “inadmissible” actions during the operation.

The report touches on the rushed adoption of toughened penalties for police disobedience and petty hooliganism in April, which local watchdog Social Justice Center argued opened up “more room for arbitrary use of repressive police mechanisms and sanctions.”

The human rights monitoring organization also discusses the September 2021 leaking of alleged files of the State Security Service of Georgia, which contained compromising information on Georgian Orthodox clergymen, as well as details of conversations of foreign diplomats journalists, civil servants, opposition politicians, among others.

The HRW also reports on the July 5 homophobic pogroms, when far-right groups attacked 53 journalists, including Aleksandre Lashkarava who sustained serious injuries and died six days later. It says that although the final forensic results had not been issued at the time of writing, Lashkarava’s family and the third sector had criticized the initial findings that he had died of a drug overdose.

The document particularly highlights that police were present during the pogroms “but failed to prevent the violent incidents.”

Noting that “journalists and other media professionals endured numerous threats and attacks throughout 2021,” the report also points to the attack on Vakho Sanaia, anchor of government-critical Formula TV in February. It adds that the three assailants were sentenced to time already served on remand.  

The HRW highlights that Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani “grabbed and confiscated the microphone” from a reporter of the government-critical Mtavari Arkhi TV in July.

The homophobic pogroms get another mention in the report, as HRW recalls that far-right mobs ransacked the office of Tbilisi Pride and broke into the offices of several CSOs as well on July 5.

“Instead of ensuring the safety and freedom of assembly of the Pride organizers and participants, the authorities appeared to blame them,” the document reads.

It cites Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s controversial remarks that holding the Pride demonstration in a public space would have been “unreasonable,” and the Interior Ministry’s warning to the organizers not to hold the March for Dignity on Rustaveli Avenue. The event was subsequently canceled as the mass violence on July 5 went unchecked.

The HRW particularly highlights that despite arresting 27 people for participating in the attacks, the authorities have received criticism for “failing to prosecute any of the organizers of the violence.”

The report says that authorities however in March allowed the first-ever legal gender recognition for a transgender person in Georgia, but stresses that the requirement for medical certification remains a serious obstacle in the lives of transgender people.

The document draws attention to the Georgian Orthodox Church-run Ninotsminda orphanage, which twice barred the Public Defender’s Office from monitoring, leading to a controversy resulting in the revelation that there were four ongoing probes into physical and sexual abuse of children at the establishment. The majority of residents were subsequently transferred to other facilities or foster families.

Also, the HRW notes that in June the Tbilisi City Court ruled severing children from their family poverty illegal, a move dubbed as “unprecedented” by Partnership for Human Rights, a local CSO.

As for the political developments, the report highlights that the opposition rejected the results of the 2021 local elections and called for street protests after GD “won a significant majority” in the polls. Citing international observers’ assessments, the document says the elections were technically well-administered but “marred by allegations of pressure on voters, vote-buying and an unlevel playing field.”

It points out that the elections were preceded by the signing of the EU-brokered April 19 Agreement between the Georgian Dream and the opposition, meant to end the parliamentary boycott of 2020. The document recalls that GD “abandoned” the deal in July, citing UNM’s refusal to join the agreement.

Besides, the HRW says that the 2021 polls were also preceded by the detention of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili on the eve of elections.

Touching on labor rights, the Human Rights Watch says fair labor conditions remain a “persistent concern” despite the sweeping labor reforms coming into force in 2021. It notes that social protections are minimal and unions lack legal leverages for effective bargaining all the while about 20 deaths and 189 injuries were reported in workplaces in 2021.

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