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US State Department comments on human rights record in Georgia

By Mzia Kupunia
Friday, February 27
The US Department of State has released its annual Human Rights Report, in which a special chapter is devoted to the human rights record of Georgia. Among the main human rights abuses reported during the year, the US State Department listed two deaths suspected to result from an excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, the intimidation of suspects, the abuse of prisoners, poor conditions in prisons, reports of politically-motivated detentions, a lack of due process in some cases and reports of Government pressure on the judiciary.

The report outlines violations committed by both the Russian and Georgian sides during the military conflict in August 2008. It says “military operations by Georgian and Russian forces reportedly involved the use of indiscriminate force and resulted in civilian casualties, including a number of journalists.” According to the authors of the report the use of force by both Russian and Georgian troops was “disproportionate.” The US State Department notes that Georgian forces carried out “indiscriminate” attacks on civilian areas with multiple-rocket launching systems, which “cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to distinguish between military and civilian objects. The rockets, known as Grad, were believed to have been used by Russian forces as well,” the report reads.

The US State Department slammed the Georgian and Russian forces for using cluster bombs during the military operations. “Human Rights Watch reported that cluster munitions used by Russia and Georgia killed 17 civilians and wounded dozens more. Most of the casualties appeared to have been caused by Russian weapons,” the authors of the report say. The report notes human rights violations committed by South Ossetians as well, including attempts to ethnically cleanse villages. “South Ossetian separatists reportedly committed killings, engaged in looting, systematically attacked ethnic Georgian villages, and blocked international observers from viewing events first hand. Russian military forces and de facto [South Ossetian authority] militias did not permit observers into South Ossetia and occupied areas to investigate claims of abuses,” the report reads.

The report criticizes the de facto authorities in Abkhazia for restricting the rights of citizens to vote and participate in the political process through a “citizenship” law. “A 2006 property law prevented internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in other parts of the country from reclaiming homes in Abkhazia. The authorities limited instruction in the Georgian language in the predominantly ethnic Georgian Gali district schools in Abkhazia.” The report makes the same claims against the de facto South Ossetian authorities too. “The South Ossetian de facto authorities announced that Georgians would be allowed to return to South Ossetia only if they renounced their Georgian citizenship and took the "citizenship" of the "Republic of South Ossetia"; in practical terms, this meant accepting a Russian passport,” the report states.

The report says, based on the OSCE report of last year’s Parliamentary and Presidential elections in Georgia, that those elections were consistent with most OSCE democratic election commitments, “however, they also highlighted significant problems, including widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, flawed vote counting and tabulation processes, and shortcomings in the complaints and appeals process. These and other problems continued into the Parliamentary elections on May 21, which international observers concluded were uneven and incomplete in their adherence to international standards.”

The report outlines the conditions of prisons and detention centres in Georgia. It says conditions remain poor and do not meet international standards. “The Public Defender's office, the OSCE, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), and many NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), continued to report inhumane and life-threatening conditions, including poor facilities, overcrowding, and inadequate health care. Most prison and pretrial detention facilities lacked adequate sanitary facilities… 94 convicts died in prison during the year, compared with 98 in 2007 and 91 in 2006… Many prisons severely lacked medical facilities, including equipment and medicine.”

However, the report notes the closure of Tbilisi Prison Number 5, known for its substandard conditions, was among “significant human rights achievements during the year.” Lessening pressure on media outlets is also listed among the achievements in the report. “Respect for freedom of speech and the press lessened, but began to rebound by year’s end… Television stations had resumed broadcasting major analytical political talk shows, with opposition and Government figures appearing on the same shows and on all channels,” the report notes.

Georgian state officials as well as human rights workers in Georgia have assessed the US State Department report as “objective” and “reflective of reality.” Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili said these kinds of reports are very important. “Russia is not fulfilling its commitments… and the stating of these new realities is a serious success of Georgian diplomacy,” the Minister noted. As for the negative remarks about Georgia, Iakobashvili said the Georgian Government is ready to take them into account.

Deputy Public Defender Giorgi Chkheidze said the report assesses the human rights record of Georgia objectively. At a special press conference early on Thursday Chkeidze said the Public Defender’s office is studying the report and more detailed comments will follow in due course.