Thomas Hammarberg, who has been serving as EU’s special adviser for legal reforms and human rights in Georgia over the past year, called on the authorities to launch “a national campaign against violence” and warned officials against trivializing cases of “hate crime”, including against politicians.
Speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi on June 7, Hammarberg laid out his observations about human rights situation in Georgia, noting progress, among them in penitentiary and judiciary, and also outlining challenges.
When speaking about problems, among others, he also mentioned cases of violence and said: “I am actually recommending the government to start a national campaign against violence – really to take violence between people seriously.”
“There have been some hate crimes committed against people, including [against] some of the people connected to politics, and also in connection to elections,” Hammarberg said.
“I think it is very, very important that all those reports about attacks on individuals… every such case to be thoroughly investigated quickly and a report be made public to stop a tendency that may spread,” he said.
The most recent case of violence took place in the center of Batumi on June 7, when several opposition UNM party leaders, among them Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava and MP Giorgi Baramidze, were meeting a small group of voters as part of a campaign ahead of the June 15 local elections; incident erupted after several men, fierce UNM critics, arrived at the meeting, which then grew into scuffles. A violent incident against UNM members and candidates also took place in Zugdidi on June 6. “This is a result of climate of violence, aggression and impunity, created by the authorities,” UNM’s Bokeria said.
In what appeared to be a political-motivated attack, one of the leading figures in opposition UNM party, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, was hit by an assailant several times in the head with a cup in a downtown Tbilisi café on May 27.
An accused assailant, who is released on bail pending trial, was charged with willful infliction of minor injuries – qualification, which is challenged by victim’s lawyers, who say that charges should have been filed under the clause of hooliganism, committed with use of an object, which carries much stricter punishment (imprisonment from four to seven years) than the clause under which charges have actually been filed (fine or imprisonment for up to one year). Opponents say that disproportionate leniency towards such crimes has already become a trend in Georgia, which contributes to “syndrome of impunity” and it only encourages further violence.
When commenting on this attack on Tchiaberashvili, some senior lawmakers from the Georgian Dream ruling majority, among them Giorgi Volski and Manana Kobakhidze, while condemning the violence, were also trying to explain such cases with, as MP Kobakhidze put it, “negative charge accumulated” in the public as a result of misdeeds committed by the previous authorities. “It’s not really the fault of the Georgian Dream if the public has negative emotions against members of UNM,” MP Kobakhidze said last week.
Speaking at the news conference in Tbilisi on June 7, Hammarberg said: “It’s important that the leaders of the country take a very clear anti-violence position.”
“Frankly, when I talk with some of the leading politicians about this problem, I have not had a feeling that they have taken it sufficiently seriously,” Hammarberg said.
“And if they are seen via the media to take this lightly, to trivialize these [cases of violence], it may be understood as a signal to other people that they can go ahead and attack people whom they do not like,” he added.
Hammarberg also highlighted “serious problem” of domestic violence, saying that he was informed about no less than 14 cases when women have been killed in their own family in the first four months of this year.
“There is a need to educate the police how to handle cases of domestic violence,” he said.
He also called to pay more attention to social issues in general. “Politics in Georgia has very much been focused on security matters in recent years, I believe time has come to focus on social matters,” Hammarberg said.
‘One of the Best in Europe – But Still a Piece of Paper’
Hammarberg said that the Georgian government approved on June 6 a comprehensive human rights action plan; the Parliament adopted in late April human rights strategy for the period of 2014-2020.
“That was in my opinion immensely important,” he said, adding that this detailed action plan is “one of the best in Europe.”
“But it’s still a piece of paper. If this is going to be an important plan depends totally whether it is implemented in reality,” Hammarberg said.
‘Judges are More Independent’
Among the positive developments he noted important improvements in the penitentiary, partly because of significantly reduced prison population, as well as progress in healthcare in the prisons.
On the judiciary he said: “It’s clear that judges are more independent than they were before. And the rulings of the court, justifications are better substantiated than before.”
He also noted progress in freedom of media, welcomed adoption of the anti-discrimination law and putting into operation office of the personal data protection inspector. He also said that relationship between the government and the civil society “improved.”
‘Improve Quality of Prosecution’
Hammarberg said that one of his messages to the government was to increase quality of the prosecution.
“I feel that still there is a need to improve quality of prosecution work in Georgia,” he said, adding that chief prosecutors have been replaced twice over the past year, which “is a signal that it has not really worked so well.”
He said that thousands of complaints, filed with prosecutor’s office by citizens since the change of government in 2012 over involuntary transfer of properties to the state, torture and ill-treatment in prisons and other alleged wrongdoings, have yet to be responded.
“One year and a half have passed and sill there is no real response to all these complaints,” he said. “Of course all those complainants have the right to have response on substance of complaint from the authorities.”
Hammarberg said PM Irakli Garibashvili informed him that chief prosecutor’s office had gone through all those complaints and will soon start working on them.
He said government’s concern is that compensations, which may stem from complaints related to reported cases of seizure of properties by the state under the previous government, would be a heavy burden for the budget. But Hammarberg said that victims should be treated fairly as much as possible.
Mechanism to Review Complaints Against Police
Hammarberg said that he also recommended the authorities to consider setting up of an independent mechanism that would review complaints filed over reported cases of wrongdoings by the police and other law enforcement personnel.
“There must be some mechanism which allows people to complain about the behavior of law enforcement personnel without any risk that they will have problems because of complaining. If a person is mistreated by a police officer that person might not be willing to go into police to complain. There must be an independent structure where you could go and complain and have this complaint looked into in an impartial manner,” he said.
Bill on Monitoring Govt Surveillance
Hammarberg welcomed adoption by the Parliament with its first reading in late May package of legislative amendments, increasing oversight mechanisms over government surveillance practices.
The bill, however, leaves security agencies’ unrestricted capabilities of direct access to telecommunications service providers’ networks unaddressed. This capability allows the Interior Ministry to carry out unrestricted monitoring of thousands of citizens’ communication simultaneously without any oversight. The original bill envisaged depriving this capability to the security agencies and obtaining any required data via telecom providers – something that is strongly opposed by the Interior Ministry and PM Irakli Garibashvili. According to the endorsed bill, a proposal should be elaborated by November about how to address this issue. GD lawmakers argued that more time is needed to come up with a rational proposal which on the one hand will provide for strong oversight measures on surveillance activities and on the other hand will not create risk to proper work of security agencies.
“I think it was wise that they [authorities] took that [disputed issue] aside because it requires quite a lot analysis because of technicalities” involved in this issue, Hammarberg said.