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Human Rights Developments

Human rights progress in Georgia stagnated in 1996. Abuses persisted, especially torture and other forms of mistreatment in detention, arbitrary detention, appalling prison conditions, use of the death sentence, corruption of law enforcement officials and the judiciary, and harassment of some political dissidents.

The cease-fires relating to the internal wars between the central government and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia (1992) and Abkhazia (1992-94) continued to hold, preventing a return to large-scale violations of the laws of war. Spontaneous returnees to Abkhazia suffered reprisals and death, and most of the estimated 250,000 people, overwhelmingly Georgian, who fled that region were afraid to return. The Georgian side made some progress in determining accountability for war crimes committed by Abkhazian fighters, but most war criminals from both sides went unprosecuted, fueling an atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity that adversely influenced general human rights protection.

The year got off to a mixed start. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) termed the November 5, 1995, parliamentary and presidential elections and the November 19, 1995, parliamentary run-offs Arelatively open;@ the assessments of the British Helsinki Group and others were generally less positive. There were overt attempts by the government to intimidate some opposition figures, and the OSCE reported that police interfered with some pre-election rallies. On the eve of the November 5 elections, authorities in the capital, Tbilisi, illegally closed the headquarters of the United Communist Party of Georgia and charged its presidential candidate, Pantileimon Giorgadze, with attempting to commit terrorist acts.

Neither Russian-sponsored peace talks on Abkhazia, recommenced in July in Moscow, nor threat of sanctions against Abkhazia by the U.N. Security Council yielded positive results. Russian (formally Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS) peacekeepers began to implement their expanded mandate in Abkhazia in 1996, including responsibility for policing. CIS and U.N. monitors deterred an escalation of hostilities, but were unable to prevent sporadic violence and intimidation of returnees by local residents and Abkhazian police. On January 5, for example, six members of the ethnically Georgian Sanaia family in Shesheleti, Gali district, were reportedly tortured and murdered, and their two neighbors shot to death. The proximity of the village to several detachments of CIS peacekeeping forces and U.N. observers undermined faith in their ability to protect the hundreds of thousands of potential returnees to the region. Return was also deterred by the disappointingly slow progress in de-mining the Gali region; only 20 percent of the mines were removed by June, according to the U.N.

On June 18, the Georgian State Prosecutor=s office completed its investigation into acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing against Georgians in Abkhazia, naming some seventy people as organizers and several hundred as perpetrators of these acts. This step toward accountability for war crimes was encouraging, but only if these individuals are prosecuted and receive a fair trial. The investigation also reportedly neglected to review cases of abuse by Georgian combatants and is therefore only a half-measure at best.

Hopes were higher in 1996 for resolution of the conflict with the separatist region of South Ossetia. In May, the OSCE helped forge a peace memorandum in which the parties pledged to refrain from use of force or other forms of coercion and to Atake all necessary measures to halt any illegal actions and any infringement upon the right of individuals on ethnic grounds.@ However, the failure to resolve the issue at the heart of the conflictCthe region=s status within GeorgiaCundermined hopes that signatories would honor this new pledge.

The government acknowledged police abuse to an unprecedented degree in 1996. According to the U.S. State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, Georgian prison officials themselves reported that forty individuals had died in pretrial detention alone from torture and abuse as well as poor conditions. According to the August 5, 1996, issue of the Georgian newspaper Akhali Taoba (Tbilisi), a review by the Procurator=s office of police misconduct identified sixty-eight illegal searches, fifty-five attempts to hide a crime, seventeen illegal arrests, and an unspecified number of cases of severe mistreatment of detainees, including the use of electric shock. On August 14, the paper cited the Procurator=s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs as reporting that Adozens@ of criminal proceedings had been initiated against police officers in 1996. However, it was unclear how many had been prosecuted and punished, if any. Moreover, no reduction in the routine police abuse or deprivation of basic due process rights was noted or, indeed, claimed in 1996.

Georgian law enforcement officials= frequent violation of the rights of detainees made the country=s active use of death sentences in 1996 all the more abhorrent. The government did not provide pertinent figures requested by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, but some journalists and human rights groups reported that as of September there were forty-one individuals on death row, including several who were known to have been convicted on the basis of confessions extracted under extreme duress.

Press freedom was widely enjoyed, although self-censorship remained a problem, particularly in the government media. The September adoption of a law on state secrets that restricts some freedom of the media, and the de facto closure of independent TV channel Rustavi-2 on July 17, apparently for political reasons, raised some concern over the state of the independent media.

Pressure against some high-profile political opponents also continued in 1996. The trials and sentencing of several leading detractors of President Shevardnadze=s administration, including former Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani, paramilitary leader Vakhtang (Loti) Kobalia, and opposition members Nugzar Molodinashvili and Badri Zarandia, dealt a significant blow to the radical opposition.

The Right to Monitor

The government generally did not interfere with monitoring; indeed, theoretically it strengthened its own capacity for addressing complaints directly by adopting a law in May establishing the office of human rights defender (analogous to an ombudsman). As of this writing the office was not yet functioning. At the same time, the fact that a human rights activist, Giorgi Kervalishvili, requested political asylum in Germany in December 1995 claiming Aconstant moral and psychological pressure from the authorities@ suggested that not all was well with indigenous monitoring.

The Role of the International Community

The United Nations

In the face of political stalemate, the UNHCR failed again in 1996 to promote the safe return of refugees and displaced persons to Abkhazia. Indeed, it closed its field offices in the conflict zone (an area experiencing spontaneous return and violence) due to budget cutbacks. In 1996, the U.N. focused instead on monitoring compliance with the cease-fire agreement, preparing human rights education materials, and developing human rights monitoring for the region. The U.N. extended the mandate for the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMiG) and its 136 military observers in Abkhazia, and thereby played a significant role in deterring human rights abuses there. Security Council resolution 1077 of October 22 established a human rights office in Abkhazia=s main city, Sukhumi, as part of UNOMiG. The proposed program, to be jointly administered with the OSCE, would aim Ato promote respect for human rights, protect the human rights of the population of Abkhazia,... contribute to a safe and dignified return of refugees and internationally displaced persons and report on human rights developments@ there.

The European Union

On April 22, the European Union signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Georgia that enshrines respect for democratic principles and human rights. If approved by the European Parliament, the E.U.=s commitment to insisting on compliance will be monitored closely.

The Council of Europe

On July 14 Georgia applied to upgrade its guest status at the Council of Europe to full membership. This opened a review process that will offer many occasions for the council to use its influence to secure improvements in Georgia=s human rights record. According to an Interfax report of July 15, Secretary General Daniel Tarchys set an appropriately cautionary tone during his July visit to Georgia by stressing that full membership would not be granted until Georgia banned the death penalty and otherwise brought its legislation into conformity with European standards, and refrained from coercive methods to settle the Abkhazia conflict.

The United States

The U.S. embassy made important interventions and paid much-needed attention to brokering peace in Abkhazia. The State Department demonstrated a sensitive and comprehensive understanding of human rights problems in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995. By contrast, the U.S. was not known to have demonstrated similar concern about Georgian authorities= failure to investigate and prosecute its own troops for war crimes.

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