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Human Rights Watch's Submission on Georgia to the European Commission’s ENP Progress Report

This submission, prepared to feed into the upcoming European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan progress report on Georgia, summarizes Human Rights Watch’s concerns with respect to a number of areas where believe government action is not in line with the ENP Action Plan’s priority area 1 for Georgia: Strengthening rule of law, democratic institutions and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Our concerns fall into the following five categories: excessive use of force by Georgian law enforcements on November 7, prison overcrowding, lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, anti-torture measures, and restrictions on property rights. We will also propose concrete and measurable reform steps the Georgian government should take to address these problems. We believe the Commission can play a crucial role in helping to resolve these problems by making the proposed reforms part of its ENP Action Plan implementation process with the Georgian government.

Excessive use of force on November 7
On November 7, hundreds of government forces violently dispersed opposition-led demonstrations in Tbilisi, and raided and closed a private television station, Imedi, injuring at least 500 people, some of them critically. These actions triggered a serious human rights crisis in the country. Human Rights Watch’s report, “Crossing the Line,” documents four separate incidents in which riot police used water cannons, teargas, and rubber bullets to disperse the largely peaceful demonstrations. Law enforcement personnel, many of them masked, pursued fleeing demonstrators of all ages, kicking and punching them and striking them with wooden truncheons, wooden poles, and other objects. Heavily armed government troops also stormed Imedi, threatening and ejecting the staff and damaging and destroying much of the station’s equipment, forcing the station off the air. Although the Georgian government claimed that it was responding to alleged threats of massive public disorder and a coup d’etat, these alleged threats cannot justify the level of force used.

Since November 7, the Georgian government has taken a number of important steps to diffuse the political crisis. Presidential elections were held, Imedi was allowed to broadcast over a month later,1 and several political prisoners were released. But what is urgently needed is a prompt, comprehensive, independent, transparent and conclusive investigation into excessive use of force on November 7, in order to prevent excessive use of force in times of political crisis in the future. Such an investigation is also paramount for the Georgian government’s efforts to re-establish the public’s trust in law enforcement agencies, which in the past it had worked so hard to ensure.

We hope to see the Commission use the opportunity of the ENP Action Plan Progress Report to emphasize the following specific points with the Georgian government:

  • The urgent need to immediately commence an independent, comprehensive investigation into dispersal of protestors and excessive use of force on November 7 on Rustaveli Avenue, at Rike and outside of Imedi television studios. To our knowledge the government has opened investigations into a few specific incidents of police violence, but this is clearly insufficient. There should be not only investigations into the numerous incidents of individual policemen beating of protestors, but there should also be an investigation into whether the use of force and firearms was consistent with national and international human rights laws and standards as well as an investigation into the command responsibility of those overseeing operations in which excessive force was used.

  • The need to ensure that such an investigation be open to public scrutiny and capable of leading to the prosecution of abusive officials.

  • The need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to freedom of expression by thoroughly investigating the allegations of targeting journalists on November 7, including assault on journalists and interference with their professional duties.

  • The need to ensure that all law enforcement personnel receive practical training on the use of force and the limits with regard to established human rights principles.

Prison conditions
Another well-documented area of concern in Georgia is poor prison conditions. Overcrowding is a serious problem in many of Georgia’s penitentiary facilities, leading to numerous human rights violations, including inadequate nutrition, medical care, and exercise. In September 2006 Human Rights Watch published the report “Undue Punishment: Abuses against Prisoners in Georgia”, documenting prison conditions in the country.

Since the release of this report, the government has taken several steps in response to overcrowding. A presidential pardon and amnesty at the end of 2007 reduced the raw number of inmates, and the opening of a new prison in Gldani (Tbilisi) at the end of 2007 has helped to relieve some overcrowding at Tbilisi Prison No. 5.

But while both steps are welcome, they do not address the root causes of overcrowding, and many other facilities remain severely overcrowded. For example, according to the OSCE, the prison in Batumi, which is officially designed to hold 350 prisoners, is currently holding more than 1000 prisoners. Furthermore, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman Degrading Treatment (CPT) and other experts have repeatedly stated that building new facilities is not a solution to overcrowding. Although the courts in Georgia use bail more frequently as a pretrial restraining measure, the number of prisoners rose monthly by an average of 400 in 2007. A lasting, strategic solution to overcrowding requires the adoption of alternatives to pretrial custody and the development of probation and parole systems.

The establishment of the new prison hospital is another welcome step, but Human Rights Watch shares concerns articulated by other human rights organizations regarding the Georgian government’s plan to outsource medical treatment to a private contractor rather than transferring responsibility to the Ministry of Health. This transfer in no way relieves the state’s responsibility to ensure adequate medical care for people in custody, and we are chiefly concerned that the Georgian government be fully aware of this.

The government’s investigation into alleged excessive use of force during the March 2006 disturbance in Tbilisi Prison No.5, which resulted in the death of seven inmates and injuries to 17 others, remains inconclusive. This is troubling, because, as noted above, failure to deliver justice for abuses and the resulting impunity for them can severely undermine the public faith in the criminal justice system reforms of the past four years.

We note that reform of the penitentiary and probation service was among the issues specifically addressed in the Action Plan. It is therefore especially relevant for the Commission to incorporate into the progress report the need for the Georgian government to undertake the following steps:

  • Effectively address the lasting problem of prison overcrowding, adopt alternatives to pretrial custody and develop probation and parole systems.

  • Conclude the investigation into alleged excessive use of force during March 2006 disturbance in Tbilisi Prison No 5 and hold abusive officials accountable.

  • Fully implement the recommendations made by the CPT.

CPT recommendations and implementation of OPCAT
Human Rights Watch welcomes the government’s authorization for the CPT to publish its latest report on Georgia in October 2007. In it, the CPT noted progress in preventing ill-treatment of people in police custody, but expressed concerns of ill-treatment of detainees and poor conditions in many detention facilities. The CPT called on the Georgian government to, among other things, provide a lasting solution to prison overcrowding, address continuing instances of ill-treatment of detainees, and ensure effective investigations into allegations of abuse.

To better address the problem of torture and ill-treatment Georgia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in 2005 and established an Inter-Agency Coordination Council to facilitate its implementation. Human Rights Watch is among the local and international organizations the government has invited to serve as advising members of the Council. Senior Georgian officials at the Council have introduced an Anti-torture Action Plan, which identifies concrete changes in policy and practice to prevent torture and ill-treatment. While the Anti-torture Action Plan is welcome, much of it replicates the previous plan, the implementation of which is part of Georgia’s ENP Action Plan commitments. Among the key substantive actions that we believe the government should undertake are the following:

  • Designate an independent anti-torture body, as envisaged under OPCAT, to monitor and assist with the Anti-torture Action Plan’s implementation

  • Ensure the new Anti-torture Action Plan contains concrete benchmarks and a specific timeline for implementation of reforms to prevent torture.

  • Ensure the Action Plan is fully backed by support at the highest levels of government, including through unequivocal public statements condemning torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.

Lowering the age of criminal responsibility
The Georgian government lowered the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12 for certain crimes in May 2007. The move directly flouted a recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (Georgia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child), to states not to lower the age of criminal responsibility and further weakened the protection of children in conflict with the law. Although the new measure will come into effect in June 2008, Georgia has yet to build a juvenile justice system capable of rehabilitating young offenders.

The need for a developed juvenile justice system was illustrated in summer 2007, when a disturbance in the juvenile prison in Georgia left at least 12 inmates and one guard injured. As punishment for the disturbance 107 children were transferred to a prison for adults, where 64 remained for three months. As a result they were deprived of the right to education and subjected to restrictions on meeting with their families.

  • Georgia should develop a juvenile justice system, capable of rehabilitating children in conflict with the law, not just isolating them. Until such a system is in place it should postpone the enforcement of measure lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

Violations of property rights
As part of the ENP Action Plan implementation process the Georgian government made a commitment to respect the right to property. Human Rights Watch has received numerous complaints regarding the failure by the Georgian authorities to adequately compensate owners for property confiscated for urban renewal or private development. These have included confiscation and demolishment of small shops, booths and stalls around metro stations and at other locations, saying that they tarnish the city’s image. Another wave of property confiscations forced restaurant owners in Tbilisi and a nearby town to “voluntarily” hand over their property to the state or face criminal charges. Although by the end of 2007 the Georgian parliament passed a resolution instructing state agencies to cease probes into disputed properties, except in cases of “special interest”, the effects of this resolution on property rights remain to be seen.

  • In this context the European Commission should continue to press the Georgian government to respect property rights as part of its ENP Action Plan implementation and to ensure that all owners of property confiscated for public or private development cause are adequately compensated.

1On December 26 Imedi TV and management suspended the broadcast in a protest to its owner and the authorities.

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