Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged U.S. President George W. Bush to use his upcoming meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili on July 5 to reaffirm importance of human rights, as the Georgian government “is backsliding on many of its human rights commitments” despite some progress made in recent years.
In a letter sent to President Bush on June 27, the New York-based influential human rights watchdog called to raise three issues, which, as claimed by the HRW, are of major concern: prison conditions and treatment of prisoners; “use of lethal force” by law enforcement officers and attacks on the independence of the judiciary.
Saakashvili and Bush are expected to meet in Washington on July 5. In a statement issued on June 19 the White House, which has described Georgia as "a key ally" said the two Presidents will discuss “developments in consolidating Georgia’s democratic transition since the U.S. President’s visit to Georgia in May, 2005” along with other issues involving secessionist conflicts and energy security.
“I do not know whether Bush will follow these recommendations of Human Rights Watch, but the fact in itself that such an influential organization raises these issues on the eve of the meeting gives us hope that efforts will be made to improve situation in those areas where human rights concerns are alarming,” Sozar Subari, the Georgian Public Defender, told Civil Georgia on July 1.
The letter, which is signed by Holly Cartner, Executive Director Europe and Central Asia Division and Tom Malinowski, HRW Advocacy Director, tells Bush that his administration “has pointed to Georgia as a hopeful model for democratic change in its region. But Georgia’s democratic gains remain fragile, and what we are seeing today are the warning signs of significant regression.”
“If this trend continues, Georgia will no longer be a positive example to others; on the contrary, its problems will only hearten those in the region who want to see its experiment fail. The time to raise these issues with the Georgian government is now. No friend of Georgia is in a better position to do so than you, given the close relationship you have forged with President Saakashvili.”
In the letter Human Rights Watch says that its research conducted in May 2006 in several penitentiary facilities revealed “systematic violations of prisoners’ rights, even in two newly built prisons which physically meet international standards.”
The HRW emphasized on the March 27 incident in the Tbilisi prison number five, which has resulted in death of at least seven inmates, noting that no investigations have been undertaken by the authorities to determine whether the “lethal force” used by special forces was proportionate.
Public Defender Sozar Subari says that the probe carried out by the Ombudsman’s office has revealed two major findings. The fist one is that the March 27 prison disturbances seem to be instigated by the prison authorities.
“And the second one: most of the inmates were injured in their cells, which directly indicates that an excessive force was used,” Subari said.
The HRW notes that there has been a serious increase in the use of violence by law enforcement officers in prison facilities since the December 2005, when a new leadership took over the penitentiary system.
The Public Defender has also accused for several times Bacho Akhalaia, chief of the prison system, of violating inmates’ rights and for instigating the March 27 prison incident in Tbilisi, which triggered some influential parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party to slam Sozar Subari for making “biased judgments.”
Subari says that a positive trend in respect of prison system was efforts of the authorities to eliminate the influence of organized crime bosses, or as they are called in Georgia ‘thieves-in-law’ in prison.
“But new rules in prisons are often carried out through by-passing law and through a violation of human rights, which is a negative trend,” he added.
Use of ‘Lethal Force’
The HRW’s letter also notes that in 2005 and 2006 there has been a rise in the number of suspects killed by Georgian law enforcement officers during special operations and at the moment of arrest. 21 suspects were killed in 2005, and in the first four months of 2006 17 suspects were killed, including seven in the March 27 prison incident.
“The government consistently refuses to investigate the actions of law enforcement agents involved in the killing of suspects and has repeatedly violated the presumption of innocence for those killed, by issuing statements praising the professionalism of law enforcement agents in eliminating “criminals,” the HRW said.
Public Defender Subari says that there are too many cases when disproportionate force is used. “There two ways to prevent cases of these kinds: one is to increase professionalism of the law enforcers and another is to demonstrate political will,” Subari said.
But the HRW notes that there is no sign that the authorities are willing to show this political will.
“Senior officials, including President Saakashvili and the Minister of Interior [Vano Merabishvili] have made public statements supporting a “zero tolerance” policy for crime, and many of their statements have condoned the use of lethal force,” HRW said.
The HRW says in its letter to the U.S. President that the Georgian authorities’ efforts to remove allegedly corrupt judges “have lacked transparency and due process.”
The watchdog group says that 21 of 37 Supreme Court judges resigned in 2005, “many of them under pressure” and nine judges who had been pressured to resign chose to stay in office, but they soon were the subject of disciplinary proceedings and were suspended from office.
Sozar Subari says that he can only welcome ongoing reforms in the judiciary, as well as dismissal of “corrupt judges.”
“But on the other hand there are too many cases, when the court’s rulings are influenced by mounting pressure on the judiciary,” Subari added.
The Georgian Public Defender plans to speak about human rights concerns during his address to the Parliament, which tentatively should take place by mid-July after talks between Saakashvili and Bush.
The HRW also told the U.S. President “many in Georgia will be looking to you to express concern about the government’s recent backsliding on human rights and to reinforce the commitments espoused by the leaders of the Rose Revolution.”