The European Union should act to protect Georgian civilians from continued attacks by Ossetian militias and opportunistic violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to use its unprecedented summit on Russia on September 1 to make a plan for ensuring protection for civilians in Georgia.
Russian forces started withdrawing from the Gori district around August 22, but they continue to have checkpoints in the area. Human Rights Watch researchers documented a disturbing pattern of violence against civilians, including abductions, looting, and beatings taking place beyond these checkpoints, particularly in areas bordering South Ossetia.
“Georgian villages in the border areas have become a no man’s land, with civilians at the mercy of Ossetian militias and armed criminals,” said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Europe’s relationship with Russia has seldom been more difficult than today, but this issue cannot wait for a political solution to the conflict. Addressing this situation should be a top priority for the EU at next week’s summit.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call on the EU to deploy a robust European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) mission consisting of police and security forces to ensure protection of civilians and the return of displaced persons to their homes. Human Rights Watch also called on the EU to initiate discussion of an international peacekeeping mission to Georgia.
Russia’s recognition on August 26 of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has caused a crisis in EU-Russian relations.
After Russian military forces moved out of the Gori district, Georgian police were allowed to move in, but not beyond Russian forces’ checkpoint at the village of Variani, about eight kilometers north of Gori. As the Georgian police are not allowed in, and Russian forces do not go on patrols beyond the checkpoint, there is no one providing security in the northern Gori district.
“Russia is obligated to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians in the areas under its de-facto control, but civilians are clearly not being protected,” said Denber. “This is why the European Union should urgently agree on an international presence to ensure security.”
Between August 22 and 27, Human Rights Watch spoke with people from five villages in areas under effective Russian control, all of whom were victims of or witnesses to violence by Ossetian militias. For example, on August 24, at around 5 p.m., Ossetian militias abducted five men from the village of Tirdznisi. The wife of one of the five, 52-year-old Jumber Tetunashvili, told Human Rights Watch that her husband had managed to call her and said he was in detention in Tskhinvali.
On August 24, four armed Ossetians came to the village of Koshki, where they looted houses and severely beat at least four civilians. One of the victims, “Vano,” told Human Rights Watch:
“I stood in the street with three neighbors. They approached us, shooting in the air, and said ‘You weren’t happy with a peaceful life – now we’re going to show you!’ They asked for money, but what kind of money do we have?! Then they started beating us with the butts of their guns. One neighbor had his collar bone broken as a result of the beating. He was taken to the hospital. They hit me and another neighbor in the face, on the ribs and in the kidney area. Then they went to the next door house and looted it. I saw them take away a fridge, clothes and other things. They loaded the loot on to a cart and forced me at gunpoint to push it.”
When Human Rights Watch interviewed “Vano” and his neighbor, the two men were visibly in pain, and were transported to the hospital shortly thereafter.
On August 26 and 27, numerous residents fled the villages of Meghvrekisi and Nikozi. People who fled Meghvrekisi told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of August 26, three armed Ossetians in camouflage fatigues came to the village, searching for young men. When they realized that young males had fled the village, they physically assaulted three villagers – two women and a man.
Villagers fleeing Meghvrekisi and Nikozi also said that over the past couple of days, Ossetian militias had been looting and burning houses, forcing most civilians to leave.
On August 26, when Human Rights Watch researchers visited the village of Pkhvenisi, three kilomters south of Nikozi and Meghvrekisi, local residents complained that nobody had been providing security in the village, and said they were afraid that the looters would move on to their village.
Just 30 minutes later, the villagers called Human Rights Watch and reported that four armed Ossetians held them at gunpoint and stole their tractor.