Georgia in U.S. Human Rights Report 2020

A new report on human rights practice in 2020, released by the U.S. State Department on March 30, says “the independence of the judiciary along with detentions, investigations and prosecutions widely considered to be politically motivated; unlawful interference with privacy; limited respect for freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and crimes involving violence or threats targeting LGBTI persons” were some of the significant human rights issues in Georgia.

According to the State Department, Georgia’s “government took steps to investigate some officials for human rights abuses, but impunity remained a problem, including a lack of accountability for the inappropriate police force used against journalists and protesters during June 2019 demonstrations and the 2017 abduction and rendition from Georgia of Azerbaijani journalist and activist Afgan Mukhtarli.”

“The Judicial Clan,” “Political Prisoners,” Corruption

The report noted that “there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary.”

It cited the concerns by the Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community that highlight the existence of “the judicial clan” – a group of non-reformist judges holding sway of their colleagues in the system – among the central problems of the judicial independence. The document referred to “the clan” some nine times in the lengthy piece about the court.

Speaking of the shortcomings in the “fourth wave” of reforms in 2019, the document cited NGOs reporting that one of the levers court chairs used to influence the outcomes of cases was creating narrowly specialized chambers in larger courts to manipulate the randomized case assignment process.

The report noted that “the long-standing practice of transferring judges from one court to another also remained a problem,” with the “unsubstantiated” decisions made by the High Council of Justice. It said “most of the judges transferred to administrative chambers panels were affiliated with the “clan,” and almost all of them were associated with high-profile cases,” adding that “administrative chambers adjudicate election disputes.”

The document cited NGOs reporting that “the courts did not serve as an effective check over election administration bodies following the October 31 parliamentary elections while reviewing appeals.”

“In one case, Bolnisi Court, followed by the Tbilisi Court of Appeals, declined to annul the votes in a precinct or order a repeat vote after video evidence showed that one person illegally voted in the same precinct several times in Bolnisi,” the report highlighted.

“The opposition continued to urge the release of opposition figure Giorgi Rurua, characterizing him as a political prisoner whose release was envisioned under the March 8 political agreement between ruling and opposition parties,” noted the report. According to the text, “In addition to election system changes, the agreement contained a provision that the government would address the appearance of political interference in the judicial system.”

Regarding corruption, according to the State Department’s report, the government implemented the law effectively against low-level corruption, while NGOs continued to cite weak checks and balances and a lack of independence of law enforcement agencies among the factors contributing to allegations of high-level corruption.

Political Freedoms and Civil Liberties

The report cited the Public Defender’s Office and NGOs criticizing “police use of water cannons to disperse protesters outside of the Central Election Commission on November 8, after protesters tried to breach a metal fence around the commission.”

“The effectiveness of government mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse by law enforcement officials and security forces was limited, and domestic and international concern regarding impunity remained high,” the document highlighted.

It also said there were reports that police continued to employ the administrative offenses code to restrict freedom of assembly.

The document stated that there were widespread reports that the government monitored the political opposition, and that local and international NGOs reported government officials monitoring independent Azerbaijani journalists and activists residing in the country.

The report also referred to the last general election, stating that 26 local CSOs described the conduct of the October 31 elections “as the worst held under Georgian Dream.”

Regarding COVID-19 pandemic-related emergency, which lasted for several months throughout the year, the report said “there were no significant reports that the government abused its powers under the state of emergency.”

Abkhazia, Tskhinvali Regions

The report expensively referred to the state of human rights in Georgia’s Kremlin-backed Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia regions.

It noted that the de facto legal system in Abkhazia prohibits property claims by ethnic Georgians who left Abkhazia before, during, or after the 1992-93 war, thereby depriving internally displaced persons of their property rights.

The document cited Abkhaz “ombudsperson’s” report, addressing rights violations of the “indigenous” ethnic Georgian population residing in the occupied region. The State Department said ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia “lacked fundamental rights and confronted onerous registration requirements that threatened their continued status.” It further stressed that the Abkhaz ”closed village schools and did not provide ethnic Georgians opportunities for education in their native language.”

The report also discussed substantial impediments to internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, with the majority of the approximately 290,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in Georgia proper unable to return to their homes in these regions.

It further discussed the free movement impediments the other way around, recalling that by the end of 2020, 16 persons reportedly died in occupied S. Ossetia due to the inability to cross into Tbilisi-administered territory to receive higher quality medical care.

Press, Internet Freedom 

The report cited civil society groups alleging that the ruling party continued to attempt to gain undue influence over Adjara Public Broadcaster, a Batumi-based channel, following the controversial dismissal of Natia Kapanadze. According to the report, new director Giorgi Kokhreidze “fired and harassed dozens of employees who were vocally critical of the management.”

The document cited the Public Defender’s Office, some media watchers, NGOs, and opposition parties expressing suspicion that a number of criminal prosecutions against critical media outlets or their owners were politically motivated, including the conviction of Giorgi Rurua, Mtavari Arkhi TV shareholder and the investigation against Nika Gvaramia, the Director-General of Mtavari Arkhi, and the State Security Service’s investigation of Mtavari Arkhi for a report it broadcasted to constitute harassment.

The report also touched upon the attacks on journalists during the October election campaign allegedly by political party representatives.

While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by Russian and de facto authorities.

Regarding internet freedom, according to the document, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but concerns remained regarding unauthorized surveillance.

Worker Rights, Children, Women, LGBTI Groups

Speaking of worker rights, the report said the government only sometimes effectively enforced these laws, due to “the lack of a fully functioning labor inspectorate.” It said the government did not effectively enforce laws that protect freedom of association and prohibit anti-union discrimination and that “remedies to address arbitrary dismissal and legal disputes regarding labor rights were subject to lengthy delays.”

In this context, the document further stated that employers’ obligations to participate in mediation are not clearly defined by law or practice, illustrated by a collective bargaining process that deadlocked at the Adjara Public Broadcaster.

Regarding children, the document underscored that the school dropout rate remained high, with the impact of early marriage, child poverty, and child labor hindering their access to education. In 2019, more than 14,000 minors dropped out of school, compared with 10,433 in 2018, it said.

The government did not enforce the law about rape effectively, the State Department noted. It said while rape is illegal, criminal law does not specifically address spousal rape.

The report also cited the Public Defender reporting that LGBTI individuals continued to experience systemic violence, oppression, abuse, intolerance, and discrimination. It highlighted that starting in May and continuing through the summer, there were numerous vandalism attacks and anti-LGBTI demonstrations at the Tbilisi Pride office.

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NB: The document has been amended for further clarity. The section on the judiciary has been expanded.

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