On the International Human Rights Day, December 10, Public Defender and some rights groups highlighted main trends in Georgia’s human rights protection over the past one year, noting progress, but also pointing at problems and challenges.
Public Defender, Ucha Nanuashvili said that liberalization of criminal justice policy was “one of the most significant achievements” this year.
He, however, noted that cases of “intolerance” towards various minority groups represent “burning issue”. He said that the state failed to appropriately react to the incidents that took place in several rural areas with mixed Muslim and Christian population when Muslim communities were barred from performing prayer by the local Orthodox Christian residents. He also noted several cases when the state failed to secure the right of freedom of assembly and expression because of “either inaction or inadequate reaction” from the police; in particular he pointed out at the May 17 incident when a small group of anti-homophobia rally participants were attacked by a large group of anti-gay demonstrators and the July 20 incident when UNM opposition party activists and supporters were attacked in Zugdidi.
Nanuashvili said that there were improvements in prisons, but he also pointed out to the problem of what he called “increased role” of makurebeli (a Georgian word that can be translated as watcher or observer) – a group of influential prisoners informally overseeing and controlling other inmates, usually with tacit acceptance from prison administration.
“Makurebelis existed in prisons for years,” Nanuashvili said. “But this year this institution has strengthened… More efforts are needed to tackle this problem.”
Sozar Subari, the minister in charge of the penitentiary system, denied the allegation and said that makurebelis were widely used by the previous administration “to punish other inmates”, but the new administration has curbed it.
“It is very regrettable that the Public Defender has fallen under the influence of MP Akaki Minashvili’s words,” Subari said referring to UNM lawmaker who is frequently accusing prison system minister of promoting the role of makurebelis in prisons.
Speaking at a human rights conference in Tbilisi on December 4, Thomas Hammarberg, who was appointed by the European Commission as the EU's Special Adviser for Legal and Constitutional Reform and Human Rights in Georgia, said that there were “radical improvements” in the penitentiary system. He, however, also warned of risk of “gang rule situation when some of the inmates take control of other inmates and there may also be the risk of violence.” “Of course it’s important to keep an eye on this,” he said.
Tbilisi-based legal advocacy and rights group, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, said in a statement on December 10 that human rights protection has “significantly improved in number of directions over the past one year.”
“Negative obligations are better observed by the state, implying abstaining from interfering in individuals’ rights. Level of dialogue and cooperation with the civil society has improved (for example important remarks by GYLA and its partner organizations have been accepted in certain cases in the process of discussing bills in the Parliament). One of the trends in this period was involvement of the society in the process of drafting of bills prior to their submission to the Parliament, which is definitely a positive [trend], which, we believe, can be further deepened,” the group said.
GYLA also identified number of challenges, among them related to the need of further reform of the judiciary. It hailed the reform of High Council of Justice as an “important step” towards increasing judiciary’s independence. It, however, also said that further measures are required to provide more guarantees for independence of individual judges.
The group also highlighted problems with “accountability” of law enforcement agencies. GYLA said that there were number of cases of “violation of law and exceeding of authority” by the police, which were either not at all investigated or not investigated promptly, efficiently and objectively.
Cases of violation of rights of religious and sexual minorities, as well as need for more efforts to protect rights of vulnerable groups, were also highlighted by GYLA.
GYLA criticized government’s decision to put on hold setting up of a commission that will look into alleged cases of miscarriages of justice. Such a commission has been under consideration throughout this year; the Justice Ministry drafted the bill, but its further progress was suspended by the government, which cited financial constraints.
EU’s special advisor to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, speaking at the conference on December 4 said that there is a need to go through past in a “systematic manner”.
“It’s normal after a change of government that there will be a period when one looks backwards,” he said, but warned against dragging out the process.
“I believe that there is a need to have a systemic look at the past… and to try not to drag it out too long, because the country needs to go forward and not to be stuck in the past,” said Hammarberg, who was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in 2006-2012.
In a written statement on the Human Rights Day, PM Irakli Garibashvili said on December 10 that the human rights represent the priority and the government “has backed up its words with deeds.”
Last week the government announced about launching development of human rights strategy and its action plan, which will be based on a report issued by Thomas Hammarberg in September.
Speaking at a conference, which was dedicated to planned human rights strategy and its action plan on December 4, Hammarberg stressed on importance of putting in place a system that will protect against human rights violations and will focus on prevention.
“There is a need to review the institutions in the society. When it comes to human rights, it is not only an issue of responding to an immediate crisis, it is a question of systematic organizing of the society so that human rights [violations] are as little likely as possible,” he said, adding that there is a need of checks and balances so that to provide a system wherein problems are addressed at an early stage.