President George W. Bush should raise concerns about regression on human rights in Georgia at his meeting in Washington next week with President Mikheil Saakashvili, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Bush administration points to Georgia as a hopeful model for change,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the situation there remains fragile, and there are warning signs of backsliding on human rights.”

In a letter to President Bush, Human Rights Watch described new Georgian government practices on the treatment of prisoners, the use of force by law enforcement officers, and judicial independence, that run counter to Georgia’s international human rights commitments. Human Rights Watch pointed to the rise in overcrowding in prisons, increased restrictions on visits by family members and lawyers, and more frequent use of force by the police, including lethal force. Human Rights Watch also questioned the government’s respect for the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers in light of forced resignations and disciplinary proceedings against numerous judges, initiated by the executive.

These new policy approaches are apparently part of a government campaign targeting corruption and organized crime.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged the importance of such a campaign, but noted that the human rights violations it is spawning will have long-term negative consequences for human rights in Georgia, and threaten to undermine the credibility of the Saakashvili government’s commitment to guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights.

“The Bush administration has a special relationship with the Georgian government,” said Cartner. “That shouldn’t exclude constructive, critical dialogue, and it’s time to raise these issues now, before they are entrenched as government policies.”