WORLD REPORT 1999 - Georgia

Human Rights Developments

Despite President Eduard Shevardnadze’s repeated public statements indicating a commitment to reform and improved human rights practices, he failed in 1998 to curb and bring to justice members of abusive security forces. Physical abuse of detainees in the custody of the Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to be widespread and routine throughout Georgia.

Cases that came to Human Rights Watch’s attention included that of Gulchora Dursunova, detained on suspicion of drug trafficking. Dursunova was reported to have fallen to her death on June 23 at approximately 5:00 a.m. from the eighth floor of the Ministry of Internal Affairs headquarters building in Tbilisi while being questioned by police. On May 6, four police officers from the Galdani Massif police station in Tbilisi detained Jemal Teloyan, and severely and repeatedly beat him, while later detaining his mother and demanding a bribe for his release. In another incident, an angry mob dragged Sergo Kvaratskheli, a resident of Tsalendjika, from his hospital bed and beat him to death on the night of March 7, while local and regional police reportedly looked on. Neighbors had accused Kvaratskheli of stealing items from a grave.

On May 20, the worst fighting since the 1993 cease-fire broke out in the Gali region of Abkhazia. More than 200 people were reported killed and approximately 30,000 fled after Abkhaz militia swept through villages in the Gali region in a deliberate campaign to terrorize inhabitants and destroy their homes by setting them afire. Abkhaz militia reportedly shot, raped and tortured ethnic Georgians during the campaign, and then systematically looted and burned the property of those who fled. Refugees alleged that some units of a predominately Russian CIS peacekeeping force fired on them as they fled, while other CIS peacekeeping force units reportedly acted to protect those seeking refuge. Throughout the year Abkhaz militia reportedly detained and routinely extorted money from ethnic Georgians who had returned to their homes in the Gali region.

The Georgian government denied that its security forces trained, supplied, and directed the activities of some partisan groups despite persistent and highly credible reports that partisan groups had links to the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Defense and, to the State Security Service and to some members of the government. The fighting in Gali erupted after steady reports of violence by Georgian partisans over the past eighteen months.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs continued to ignore calls from international monitors and the Ministry of Justice to transfer both pre-trial and post-conviction facilities to the latter’s authority. Draft legislation on penitentiary reform proposed earlier by the parliament would have transferred post-conviction facilities to the Ministry of Justice, but the government delayed in giving it final approval.

Visiting international monitors reported to Human Rights Watch that although conditions in the notorious Fifth Investigative Isolator had improved, overcrowding in other pre-trail detention facilities and prisons continued to be a serious concern. Local monitors reported that there was little attempt to reform the rampant corruption and poor conditions in prisons and labor colonies. In August a prisoner in the maximum security Detention Facility No. 14, Petr Gelbakhiani, was stabbed by another inmate, Loti Kobalia, while prison guards failed to react to the attack. Gelbakhiani claimed that after the attack, prison authorities attempted to coerce him into stating that he had attempted suicide.

Senior law-enforcement officials repeatedly claimed that police officials had been prosecuted for a range of offenses, including physical abuse and corruption, in order to alter the climate of impunity. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs failed to respond to requests from Human Rights Watch to substantiate these claims by releasing information on the number of police officers convicted, the articles of the criminal code under which they were charged, or length of sentence received.

Legal and court reform also suffered a setback. Not enough candidates passed judicial examinations held in May to fill newly created judicial vacancies, thus delaying court reform and the full implementation of the criminal procedure code adopted in November 1997. The government maintained that the examinations were intended to combat widespread corruption in the judiciary and ensure that judges were conversant in recently passed legal reform. Despite concerns raised by some sitting judges, no candidates who sat for the exam, which was carried out in cooperation with international organizations, complained of bias or unfairness.

Local human rights monitors complained of procedural violations in the trial of Jaba Ioseliani, a former member of parliament and leader of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary group, and fourteen other defendants, charged with attempting to assassinate President Shevardnadze in August 1995. Procedural violations included the failure to rule inadmissible testimony allegedly gained from some of the defendants under severe and systematic torture.

The Tbilisi-based print media remained lively and critical, but several incidents suggested that the government is not sufficiently committed to stopping infringements on media freedoms. Under a presidential decree signed in April, all printing presses must register and obtain licenses from a special entity within the president’s office. An alleged harassment campaign and the subsequent conscription into the army, in violation of Georgian law, in May of Amiran Meskheli, a journalist for Orioni [Orion] newspaper, followed an article he wrote detailing sexual abuse in the Georgian army. An official of the State Security Service brought a libel suit in July against Sozar Sobeliani, the editor of Caucasioni [The Caucasus] newspaper, after he published an article regarding the activities of the defense, interior and security ministries in support of Georgian partisans in the Dali Khoeba region of Abkhazia.

Defending Human Rights

Vibrant nongovernmental organizations in Tbilisi continued to work in a broad array of areas, including human rights education and monitoring, the environment, women’s issues, and the rights of ethnic minorities. Human rights organizations carried out a number of innovative and effective human rights and civic education programs.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs hindered the efforts of some nongovernmental organizations to monitor night conditions in Tbilisi police holding facilities, and restricted access to post-conviction facilities for others involved in monitoring and providing humanitarian assistance to prisons. Nevertheless, many other senior government officials and members of parliament proved willing to meet with nongovernmental organizations and act on concerns they raised.

The Role of the International Community

Council of Europe, European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The Council of Europe continued to review Georgia’s application for full membership. Parliamentary Assembly members and other Council of Europe officials routinely raised human rights concerns with the government in private, and showed great commitment to advancing legal reform. The European Union, the single largest donor to the Caucasus, was active in support of nongovernmental organizations, and routinely raised the need for legal reform and improved human rights practices in private with members of the government. The OSCE mission to Georgia made substantial contributions to the training of the new Ombudsman’s staff, raised awareness of issues related to the Meskhetian ethnic minority, and much to its credit, spoke frankly and effectively in public fora regarding police abuse of detainees. All three organizations issued statements about the renewed hostilities in Abkhazia in May, but the statements should have been stronger to exert maximum pressure on the government of Georgia to investigate partisan violence and on Abkhaz authorities to hold their forces accountable for human rights violations.

United Nations

In a July 30 resolution, the U.N. Security Council condemned both violence against CIS peacekeepers by armed forces operating on the Georgian side of the border, and Abkhaz forces’ deliberate destruction of homes. A May statement by the president of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the renewed violence in Abkhazia. The Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which has about ninety members, in the Gali region of Abkhazia until January 1999. A mainly Russian CIS peacekeeping force of 1,500 is also stationed in the conflict zone. Negotiations under the auspices of the U.N. and the OSCE sought throughout the year to achieve a political resolution to the conflict. The U.N. and the OSCE maintain a joint human rights office in Sukhumi that carries out capacity-building work with nongovernmental organizations and engages in limited monitoring of human rights violations.

United States

The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 accurately depicted developments in Georgia during the year, highlighting serious and systematic abuses committed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. U.S. policy toward Georgia is significantly driven by its interest in promoting the Baku-Supsa oil transportation route. The U.S. and its allies have strengthened ties with the Georgian army and border service, and this increased involvement with the security forces raised concerns regarding failure to condemn sufficiently abuses by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.