Your forthcoming meeting with President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia is an important opportunity to emphasize the importance of justice and accountability for violence that shook the country on November 7, 2007.
As described in the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, on November 7, hundreds of government security personnel used excessive force against largely peaceful political demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi. At least 500 people were injured, some of them critically. These actions triggered a serious human rights and political crisis in the country.
Human Rights Watch’s December 2007 report on Georgia, “Crossing the Line,” documents four separate incidents in which riot police used excessive force, including 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. Rubber bullets were fired indiscriminately, and also directly at fleeing demonstrators. Heavily armed police and security personnel stormed a private television station, Imedi, threatening and ejecting the staff as well as damaging and destroying much of the station’s equipment, forcing the station off the air. While the Georgian government claimed that it was responding to threats of massive public disorder and a coup d’etat, it has not provided evidence to support these allegations; moreover such allegations cannot justify the level of force used.
In the past, you have pointed to Georgia as a model of democratic progress in a region where political repression is still the norm. By the same token, Georgia’s detractors in the region are eager to claim that Georgia is not a rights-respecting democracy. When the Georgian government does not fully live up to principles it claims to embrace, the impact is felt throughout the region.
The Georgian government deserves credit for taking a number of important steps to diffuse the political crisis since November 7. Presidential elections were held in January, the closed television station, Imedi, was allowed to resume broadcasting in December, and several political prisoners were recently released. We are aware that the Georgian General Prosecutor’s Office has initiated investigations into handful of cases of possible excessive use of force on November 7, but a thorough and comprehensive investigation is still lacking. In order to restore full confidence in the newly reelected Saakashvili government, a comprehensive, independent, and transparent investigation into the use of force on November 7, is urgently needed.
We understand that the Georgian government is proposing a parliamentary commission to investigate the November 7 events, following the May parliamentary elections. Should the yet-to-be-elected parliament decide to establish such a commission, its inquiry and conclusions could provide an important evaluation of the events of November 7. However, a parliamentary commission is no substitute for a prompt and effective criminal investigation led by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Georgia is expected to adhere to standards established by the Council of Europe, of which Georgia is a member, to launch an effective investigation into all allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement personnel and hold those responsible accountable. The Council of Europe has established that an investigation can only be effective if it is prompt, takes all necessary investigative steps, and is capable of leading to the identification and prosecution of those responsible for the crimes.
A parliamentary commission could conceivably be authorized to perform some investigative functions, but it will lack the full capacity and expertise of the General Prosecutor’s Office to identify and prosecute perpetrators, conduct complex forensic examinations, and evaluate large volumes of evidence. For this reason, the effectiveness of a parliamentary commission as the sole institution undertaking a comprehensive investigation into the serious and complex events of March 7 is questionable.
We hope the United States will agree that the scale of the police violence that day demands nothing less than a full investigation by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Throughout the past four years the Georgian government spared no effort to establish public trust in the country’s law enforcement agencies, whose corruption and abusiveness had become legendary under Saakahsvili’s predecessors. The government needs to ensure this important investment, which came at considerable cost, is not lost to the grim but very real image of police beating peaceful protesters of all ages, many of whom were fleeing. To retain public trust, it needs to reassure its people that it is holding the police and security forces accountable for unlawful conduct and that it is doing so in a transparent, effective way.
No friend of Georgia is in a better position than you to press this issue with President Saakashvili. The United States has been one of Georgia’s closest and strongest allies and has invested tremendous political and financial capital in promoting democracy in Georgia. The United States should promote justice in Georgia today as vigorously as it has championed Georgia’s democracy in the past.
We thank you for your attention to these concerns.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Washington Advocacy Director