HRW – Human Rights Watch (Autor)
Human Rights Developments
President Eduard Shevardnadze won reelection on April 9, 2000, to a second five-year term. The elections were marred by irregularities. Georgia's already poor human rights record deteriorated, as economic and social conditions worsened. Legal reforms unraveled and the government failed to take steps to reign in widespread corruption among senior government officials closely linked to President Shevardnadze.
An OSCE international election monitoring mission concluded in its final report that "considerable progress is necessary for Georgia to fully meet its commitments as a participating state of the OSCE" and that "steps should be taken to restore the confidence of opposition parties and voters in future elections."
Nontraditional religious minorities were harassed, attacked, and subjected to baseless charges during the run up to the election. The police and other authorities actively participated in some of the attacks, while in other instances they failed to investigate and to bring to justice the violent adherents of a nationalist group led by a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest known as Father Basili. Lower courts failed to rule inadmissable a suit filed by Guram Sharadze, an extreme nationalist member of Parliament, which sought to annul the registration of the Jehovah's Witness church. A lower court's favorable ruling to annul the registration was on appeal to the Supreme Court.
Violent attacks on nontraditional religious groups escalated in the months following the elections. On August 16, several journalists were beaten by members of Father Basili's organization as they were covering a trial involving adherents to the Jehovah's Witness faith at Guldani District Court. Two defendants on trial had been victims of a previous assault in October 1999, yet had themselves been charged for the attack by the authorities. On August 17, about forty members of Father Basili's organization assaulted human rights defenders and a journalist as they left the trial and court security officers failed to intervene. On August 20, Tianeti District police destroyed a meeting place of the Baptist Evangelical Church and briefly detained and threatened its pastor. On September 8, masked police officers wielding clubs forcibly dispersed a Jehovah's Witness gathering in Zugdidi. Almost seven hundred members of the Jehovah's Witnesses were forced to flee, and several were beaten by police. On September 17, Father Basili and a large group of his followers, accompanied by police from Marnueli District, looted a meeting site built for a gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses. Several Jehovah's Witnesses were dragged off buses and beaten, while others were robbed of their personal belongings. On September 28, police officers from Guldani and Nadzaladevi arrived without a warrant at an ashram belonging to followers of the Hare Krishna organization, and attempted to confiscate literature from the group.
Georgian nongovernmental organizations said that the attacks were intended to distract public attention from the government's failure to meet its social obligations, including months-long arrears in the payment of wages and pensions.
Prisoners in the Republican Prison hospital, and at Ortachal and other corrective labor colonies, went on hunger strikes in February and March to demand the release of political prisoners and a government reevaluation of the ouster of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In late September, twelve prisoners escaped from the hospital, among them Loti Kobalya and Guram Absandze. Absandze had been one of the defendants in the highly publicized ongoing trial of fourteen individuals accused of participation in the February 1998 assassination attempt on President Shevardnadze. Human Rights Watch monitored the trial, noting numerous complaints from defendants regarding lack of access to lawyers and other irregularities in the pretrial period.
President Shevardnadze was quoted on national television as stating that the escapes indicated that Georgia had acted prematurely when it transferred some of its detention and postconviction prison facilities from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. The transfer was an important commitment made to the Council of Europe as a condition of Georgia's accession in April 1999. Some detention facilities, notably lockups located inside police stations, remained under the interior ministry, and reports of torture and abuse in these facilities continued unabated, including reports of the use of electric shock torture in the Tbilisi Main Police Department. Reports of deaths in custody included that of Tbilisi resident Davit Vashakmadze, who died after being severely beaten by members of a Tbilisi-based police unit. He and a companion were brutally beaten shortly after being stopped for a traffic violation on the evening of November 13, 1999.
In May 1998, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, after a thorough investigation, found that four individuals, supporters of former President Gamsakhurdia, had been tortured and denied fair trials, and ruled that they were entitled to an effective remedy, including their release. For the second year running, Georgia flouted the committee's recommendation, and at the time of this writing, two of the defendants whose release was recommended, Petre Gelbakhiani and Irakli Dokvadze, remained imprisoned. Repeal of legal reforms in May and July 1999 underscored the government's lack of commitment to due process guarantees. This was especially troubling as it undermined the long term development of legal institutions capable of peacefully resolving grievances involving Georgia's multiethnic and diverse religious communities, while eroding democratic control and accountability for the actions of the police and other security forces.
The minister of justice resigned in early October, shortly after the high profile prison escapes, and a new minister, Mikhael Saakashvili, assumed office. Saakashvili stated that he would put renewed focus on reform of the court system and of the procuracy. Freedom of the presssuffered several blows, as the government attempted to stifle increasing public criticism of widespread corruption and police brutality. For over a year, Akaki Gogichaishvili, investigative reporter and producer of "60 Minutes," was subjected to threats and harassment by unknown individuals. The Sunday evening television program, which was among the highest rated in the nation, systematically investigated corruption among senior government officials. The harassment campaign came to a head in May, after Gogichaishvili reported receiving death threats from the deputy prosecutor general. Meanwhile, the only independent television station in the autonomous region of Adjara, TV-25, located in Batumi, was subject to a forced sale in mid-February after it began to increase its local news coverage. Owners claimed that the forced sale came at the behest of individuals linked to strongman Aslan Abashidze, who held the title of president of the Adjar Supreme Soviet and ruled the region.
Defending Human Rights
An innovative project adopted in 1998 by the Tbilisi City Council, the City Lawyer program, was shut down in March by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The project, designed and administered in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, had stationed lawyers hired by the city in police stations to provide twenty-four-hour-a-day legal consultations free of charge to those detained in police lockups in the metropolitan area.
The Role of the International Community
In July, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) until January 31, 2001. The U.N.-led peace process, intended to achieve a negotiated political solution to the festering conflict in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, achieved no tangible solution. In July, UNOMIG reported an increase in violent incidents related to the activities of organized crime on both sides, which it said limited the activities of humanitarian organizations. It urged the parties to demonstrate the political will to engage in intensified negotiations on the issues of Abkhazia's status, the right of return of refugees, and on security and economic rehabilitation.
In August, a prominent member of the Abkhaz opposition, Zurab Achba, was assassinated by unknown individuals in Sukhumi. Achba had worked as consultant to the joint human rights office maintained by UNOMIG and the OSCE. The assassination was linked by some to those opposed to the increasingly organized and vocal opposition to Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba.
Meanwhile, in June, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, reviewing Georgia's initial report, expressed concern regarding the large number of children living and working on the streets, recommended that Georgia establish a code of standards to ensure adequate care and protection for institutionalized children, and noted the absence of adequate legislation on juvenile justice.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
Observers from the OSCE continued to monitor portions of the Georgian border affected by the conflict in Chechnya. The international community expressed concern regarding spillover of the conflict into Georgia.
Council of Europe
In May, members of the Council of Europe monitoring committee visited Tbilisi to assess Georgia's progress in meeting conditions stipulated when it joined the organization in April 1999.
In early September, members of a visiting E.U. parliamentary delegation, much to their credit, issued an unequivocal and timely public statement urging religious tolerance and condemning violent attacks on journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and religious minorities. In early October, the Cooperation Council between the E.U. and Georgia recommended further work by the Georgian government to ensure citizens an effective and impartial judicial system that would also ensure basic individual freedoms, including religious freedom. The council also urged Georgia to pursue more actively resolution of its internal conflicts.
The United States and United Kingdom embassies in Tbilisi issued a joint public statement on September 15 condemning attacks on religious minorities, but the statement was shamefully late. Despite violent incidents throughout the year that gave ample early warning of the escalation of violence, as well as calls by Georgian nongovernmental organizations, the statement was issued only after a large scale violent attack occurred on September 8. The reluctance of the U.S. and U.K. governments to issue public statements even as human rights and economic conditions in Georgia deteriorated appeared indicative of the U.S. and European focus on securing and maintaining agreements on transportation routes through Georgia for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region.
Relevant Human Rights Watch
Backtracking on Reform: Amendments Undermine Access to Justice, 10/00