Abuse of prisoners, shortfalls in the rule of law and government interference with unions’ freedom of association in Georgia are listed among “the most important human rights problems” in the U.S. Department of State’s human rights country report, released on May 24.
In other problems the document, which is an annual survey of human rights around the world for 2011, notes about use of excessive force by the police against demonstrators “without criminal accountability”; harassment of members of the political opposition; government influence over media outlets. In a section discussing political rights, the report contains two paragraphs addressing leader of Georgian Dream opposition coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In an address via YouTube video dedicated to the release of the human rights country report, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, says that this year’s report, presented in a new format, focuses more on shortcomings.
“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 says and lists among last year’s improvements: construction of new prisons that meet international standards; the introduction of jury crimes for certain crimes and the opportunity for minority religious 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. “Free and fair election depends not only what happens on election day, but also on the political climate that exists in the months leading up to the election.”
“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 U.S. ambassador said.
On elections the report itself says that 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 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,” the report reads.
On media freedom the report says that despite of 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 TV; 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.
“Pro-opposition stations Kavkasia and Maestro expressed views more critical of the government, but their audience was concentrated in Tbilisi, which constituted 26 percent of the country’s population,” the report reads.
According to the report, “shortfalls in the rule of law, such as concerns about ensuring the judiciary’s independent and even-handed application of due process protections” remain among the problems.
“Outside influence on the judiciary remained a problem,” it says. “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 report notes about excessive use of force by the security forces, in particular during the breakup of the anti-government rally on May 26, 2011.
“Although the government took some steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, investigations into such allegations were frequently terminated or delayed, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity,” the report says.
On freedom of speech the report says 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.”
On Ivanishvili the report says that after the billionaire announced in October about intention to go into politics and run in the 2012 parliamentary elections, “there were reports that government officials targeted individuals and businesses associated with him for politically motivated harassment.”
“In one illustrative example, materials imported by Ivanishvili for business and political purposes were repeatedly and inexplicably found to be damaged following their release from customs,” the report reads.
“Moreover, representatives from Ivanishvili’s Cartu Group reported the percentage of their imports delayed by additional inspection increased from 10 percent to 100 percent since Ivanishvili entered politics. An independent monitoring company contracted by Cartu Group confirmed that Cartu imports were undamaged prior to customs entry and damaged after customs released the cargo,” reads the report, which also provides basic facts involving Ivanishvili’s and his wife’s citizenship issue with consequent court verdict on the matter.
According to the document, reports that businesses experienced “oppressive and 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.
The report lists government interference with unions’ fundamental freedom of association, including interference with strikes, arbitrary dismissals, interference with collection of dues, and harassment and intimidation of labor activists among the most important human rights problems.