Official Tbilisi has talked of filing a case against Russia in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding reported cases of abuse of the rights of Georgians deported from Russia in recent months. But there has been some hesitation as such a lawsuit would need strong evidence and would also represent a serious political decision, Georgian officials say.
Georgia has to make a final decision within a month because the lawsuit’s statute of limitations expires in late March, Beso Bokhashvili, Georgia's state representative to the ECHR, told lawmakers on February 13.
A special committee of the Georgian Parliament that was set up last October to look into cases of human rights abuses against Georgians in Russia summoned Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze and Georgia’s consular officer to Russia, Zurab Pataridze, to brief lawmakers about possible lawsuit against Russia.
“Do not think that we have no evidence at all. We do have evidence, but we need more and stronger evidence to file a lawsuit,” Justice Minister Kavtaradze told the commission.
He said that the Justice Ministry is building a case based on testimonies provided by 450 Georgian citizens who have been deported from Russia since last October.
He said the cases involve the violation of a number of provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the prohibition of collective expulsion, the deprivation of the right to life, and discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity.
A total of 2,380 ethnic Georgians have been deported from Russia since last October against the background of Russo-Georgian tensions, which hit its lowest following a spy row between the two countries, Georgia’s consul to Russia Zurab Pataridze told lawmakers on February 13.
Three Georgians died awaiting deportation. The most recent case occurred on January 25, when Zurab Muzashvili, who suffered from tuberculosis, died in a detention center in the Russian town of Engels in the Saratov District before he was deported. The Georgian consul in Russia said Muzashvili died do to negligence on the part of the Russian authorities.
Manana Jabelia, 51, died in a detention center in Moscow on December 2, six weeks after she was arrested.
Tengiz Togonidze, a 48-year-old Georgian citizen, died of an asthma attack on October 17 in Domodedovo airport in Moscow shortly before being deported to Georgia.
Georgian consul Pataridze also said that up to 60 enterprises owned by ethnic Georgians were closed down in Russia under various pretexts.
Despite these numerous “convincing facts” it is hard to obtain “strong evidence” backing them, Justice Minister Kavtaradze said.
“We can hardly obtain such evidence, I mean documents or papers signed by the Russian official structures, or court rulings,” Kavtaradze said.
He noted that there have been cases when official papers issued by the courts on deportation have been seized from Georgians prior to their deportation.
“Our task is to strengthen the existing facts with concrete evidence. I cannot allow losing this case if we file the lawsuit,” Kavtaradze added.
This cautious approach towards the issue is a setback from the initial hard-line stance of the Georgian authorities.
In late October, Justice Minister Kavtaradze and other Georgian officials were determined to file the lawsuit against Russia.
Some opposition lawmakers allege that the absence of “strong evidence” may only be a pretext to refrain from filing the lawsuit, as the Georgian authorities may now be in favor of a more conciliatory stance towards Russia after Moscow sent its Ambassador back to Tbilisi in January.
The Georgian consul to the Russian Federation noted at the hearings on February 13 that cases of “persecution of Georgians” in Russia and deportations of Georgians from Russia have significantly decreased in 2007.
An alternative to the state-versus-state option is for the deported Georgians to file individual lawsuits filed against Russia.
Although Gia Kavtaradze says that the Georgian Justice Ministry is ready to provide legal consulting to the individuals concerned, he showed a cautious approach in this regard as well.
“The European Court of Human Rights does not welcome when a state openly backs an individual lawsuit,” Kavtaradze warned lawmakers at the February 13 hearings.
Tbilisi-based non-governmental advocacy group Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) said that it can provide legal consultancy to those deportees willing to file lawsuits against Russia.
But Giorgi Chkheidze of the GYLA recently said that the group needs to know exactly what the government’s plans are in this regard in order to decide whether to pursue efforts or to let the authorities take action.