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Latest US human rights report focuses on flaws in Georgian system

By Ernest Petrosyan
Monday, May 28
The US State Department has released its annual human rights country report. It lists the abuse of prisoners by government officials, shortfalls in the rule of law, and government interference with unions' freedom of association in Georgia, among “the most important human rights problem in Georgia.”

Addressing the manner in which the Georgian government dispersed a group of protesters gathered in front of the parliament on May 26 of last year, the document highlights the “use of excessive force against demonstrators without criminal accountability.” Harassment of political opposition members, the improper use of remittances to size private property and the government influence on the media, are also emphasized in the report.

The US Embassy in Georgia, released a video address of the US Ambassador John Bass, who noted that the current report, this time presented in a new format, focuses mainly on flaws.

“Because the report itself focuses less on improvements over the previous year, I want to highlight some areas in which Georgia made important progress in 2011,” Bass noted, also listing last year's achievements: the construction of new prisons that meet international standards; the introduction of jury panels for certain crimes and the opportunity for minority religious groups to be registered as entities of public law.

“The United States continues to believe that stronger Georgian democracy requires the most competitive possible environment for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections,” Bass said.

"We have been concerned by the reports of harassment of the political opposition. We also believe, that violence – threatened or actual – by anyone has no place in this campaign or the electoral environment; nor do statements or proposals promoting intolerance within Georgian society,” the US ambassador said.

Free and fair elections are one of the main issues stressed in the report. The report says that the new election code adopted in December incorporated “many recommendations” from non-governmental organizations and the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs Venice Commission. However, the report continues, the new code fails to address the Venice Commission’s primary recommendation to strengthen the equality of the vote by reconstituting single mandate election districts to be comparable in size"

Two paragraphs of the report, discussing political rights, are referring to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the opposition coalition Georgian Dream. The report addresses the politically motivated harassment of individuals, as well as the businessmen associated with him.

“Materials imported by Ivanishvili for business and political purposes were repeatedly and inexplicably found to be damaged following their release from customs,” it read. The document also illustrated examples of the political harassment Ivanishvili has endured after he announced his entrance into the political sphere.

As for media freedom, the reports states that the government has adopted a new law providing greater transparency of media ownership “citizens had limited access to diverse and unfettered media.”

“While independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, the three largest television broadcasters [Rustavi 2; Imedi TV and Georgian Public Broadcaster] reportedly had close ties to the government, and direct or indirect government influence over media outlets remained a concern,” it says.

The report continues with freedom of speech, saying that individuals “were generally free to criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal “Although there were some notable exceptions,” it said. “Some individuals told foreign monitors they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government telephone tapping,” said.

According to the report, the problems related to the shortfalls in the rule of law are the “outside influence on the judiciary. Monitoring groups pointed to the country’s low acquittal rates in criminal cases and low rates of successful appeals as possible indicators of executive branch pressure on the judiciary,” the reports continued.

Stressing the excessive use of force employed by Georgian security forces during the demonstration break up, the report reads that the government's attempts to take some steps to prosecute and punish officials who had committed human rights abuses, frequently ended up in case termination or delay “contributing to an atmosphere of impunity.”

The document also reads that businesses experienced “oppressive work-stopping audits decreased” last year. “The transition to risk-based audits and the option for private audits reduced the perception of political abuse by the Revenue Service,” it reads.

Archil Kbilashvili, a member of the Ivanishvili-led political party - Georgian Dream, said that the recent report is the most strict and objective. “The report was very strict not because something was exaggerated in it, but because it objectively stressed the problems existing in the rule of law, [the] judiciary, prisoners' rights, and many other aspects,” Kbilashvili said.

Nana Kakabadze, the Head of the organization Former Political Prisoner for Human Rights says that the report is quite objective in comparison to the reports released in previous years. “However, the issue of political prisoners is not properly stressed in the report. Georgia holds the leading position in the post-Soviet space with its number of political prisoners, as well as the number of prisoners in general,” Kakabadze told The Messenger, adding that this issue is closely tied with the judiciary system, without which, human rights cannot be defended.