3 May 2004

Open Letter to the Georgian authorities

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) expresses its concern over the recent evolution of human rights in Georgia and in the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria. This evolution may reveal a gap between the declarations aroused by the new authorities in favour of democracy and the reality.

According to the information received by the Tbilisi based NGO Human Rights Information and Documentation Center, member of the FIDH, the recent legislative and constitutional changes, which have challenged a republican-style balance of power are of particular concern. The changes made by the Parliament , on February 6, 2004, strengthened presidential powers, allowing the president to dissolve parliament. Another amendment empowers the president to appoint and dismiss judges, thereby increasing the president’s influence over a judiciary that already suffers from a lack of independence. Moreover the government rushed through those constitutional changes without publishing the draft amendments for public discussion, as required by the Constitution.

In addition, the new President Mikheil Saakachvili’s statements on law enforcement seem unlikely to encourage lower officials to respect human rights. President Saakashvili said on January 12, 2004, on Rustavi 2 TV : «I... have advised my colleague, Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, I want criminals both inside and outside prisons to listen to this very carefully, to use force when dealing with any attempt to stage prison riots, and to open fire, shoot to kill and destroy any criminal who attempts to cause turmoil. We will not spare bullets against these people». And then on February 3, 2004, still on Rustavi 2: «I gave an order to the [the Interior Minister to] start this [anti-crime] operation and, if there is any resistance, to eliminate any such bandit on the spot, eliminate and exterminate them on the spot, and free the people from the reign of these bandits.»

The FIDH considers that those declarations from the highest officials authorities may lead to increasing the already existing excessive use of violence by the police. Law enforcement violence has been clearly denounced, for years, by both national and international organisations.

On January 28, 2004, a special group of police violently dispersed the demonstration of street traders in Tbilisi. They protested the decision of Tbilisi municipality regarding the prohibition of street trading from February 1st. The head of the police group Temur Mgebrishvili beat one of the women demonstrators. Three persons were injured.

On March 12, 2004, the excessive violence used in the arrest of Old Calendarist Priest, Basil Mkalavishvili, also illustrates this phenomenon. The Human Rights Information and Documentation Center, although admitting the necessity to sanction Basil Mkalavishvili and other religious extremists, condemned the way the police stormed the church and beat approximately 30 people.

The declarations of President Saakachvili contribute to the climate of fear and violence that goes hand in hand with the disappearances which recently occurred in Georgia.

For instance, Vazha Shengelia, the Tbilisi Labor Party leader, was kidnapped on March 30, 2004. His unknown captors have finally released him after five days.

Two Chechens, Islam Khashiev and Hussein Alkhanov, disappeared in Georgia after being acquitted by a Tbilisi Court on February 6, 2004. They were accused of violating border regulation. Their fate remains uncertain despite the claim of one Russian media on February 25, 2004, that they were detained by Russian authorities. However, in a BBC’s Hardtalk interview on March 8, 2004 President Mikheil Saakashvili denied that Georgia has "secretly extradited to Russia the two Chechens," however labeled them as "armed combatants." Despite the Tbilisi court decision, which acquitted the two Chechens, Georgian President said "they definitely are the combatants, according to my information."

The FIDH is also preoccupied by the restrictions to freedom of information and media in Georgia.

In December 2003, Nato Oniani’s Program "Time Out" on 1st Channel was cancelled. Nato Oniani declared that the government cancelled her program.

On February 19, 2004, the representatives of the General Prosecutors’ Office of Georgia launched a special operation and sealed the offices of the company «Omega Group», which is constituted by independent TV company «Iberia»; news agency «Media News» and newspaper «Akhali Epoka».

The representatives of the General Prosecutors’ Office claimed that the group was involved in a large-scale illegal cigarette importing racket and tax evasion, but so far no evidence has been revealed.

On February 4, 2004, two of the most popular privately owned TV stations «Mze» and «Rustavi2» had their highly-rated political talk shows, respectively "Night Mzera" and "Night Courier", unexpectedly cancelled. The fact that the shows were cancelled on the same day was explained as a simple coincidence. The Mze representative offered assurance that the program, as well as the host, Inga Grigolia, who was supposedly on the way to Egypt and unavailable for comment, will be back on the air in March after some technical changes are made. Unfortunately, most of this information happen to be completely false. Inga Grigolia quit Mze. Besides, Eka Khoperia’s "Night Courier" was replaced with another program where no debates takes place.

On April 5, 2004, the TV Company "Ninth Channel" also ceased operations for no apparent reason.

The FIDH is also concerned by the situation in the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria, where a state of emergency was declared on January 7, 2004. Since the beginning of year 2004, about ten incidents, regarding the freedom of press, are to be deplored. Between January and March, at least five journalists were assaulted and five others were heckled. Police forces have prevented the press from covering any protest demonstration against President of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze.

On January 13, 2004, in Batumi (capital of the Ajaria Autonomous Republic), around 15 thugs, working for Aslan Abashidze, beat David Gogitauri, journalist of the TV Company «Imedi» and seized his camera . He was about to interview a man who was attacked after hanging from his window the traditional Georgian flag, symbol of the National Movement party of the new President Mikheil Saakachvili. On January 28, 2004 four gunmen broke into David Gogitauri’s house, who has been beaten and threatened of new retaliations if he continued on covering the political events in Ajaria.

Moreover, on March 5, 2004, Vakhtang Komakhidze, a journalist of Rustavi 2, has been violently assaulted in the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria, while he was getting evidences on the alleged corruption of President Aslan Abashidze.

On January 6, 2004, representatives of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria Security Ministry arbitrarily detained 15 Kmara activists and their family members. Kmara is a youth political organization. The Kmara members and their family members were detained during search of their houses; lately they were released. The reasons for these arrests come from the activities of Kmara Ajaria organization, which had started putting up posters and distributing leaflets with slogans «Enough Abashidze’s dictatorship!», «Enough! because I love Georgia».

Since January, the country was marked by increasing tensions between the authorities of Ajaria and Tbilisi, during the parliamentary election campaign.

At the end of the negotiations which took place at the beginning of March in Batumi between Presidents Saakashvili and Abashidze, the economic sanctions imposed at the end of February on Ajaria were lifted. The sanctions were the consequences of the refusal from Ajarian security forces to let President Saakashvili entering the province’s Kobuleti District because of the armed troops accompanying the President. In return for the lifting of sanctions, the Ajarian leader agreed to let representatives of the central government control the province’s customs revenues.

However, the objects of tension remain, including the permanent lifting of the state of emergency in Ajaria, which was suspended temporally for the duration of the parliamentary polls, and the disarmament of all popular militias. On several occasions on Adjara TV, the head of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara Abashidze made it clear that he had no intention to comply with those demands. Besides, on March 29, 2004, President Mikhaïl Saakashvili, reiterated his intention to restore the authority of the central government over the unruly Autonomous Republic of Ajaria. President Saakashvili said to have submitted a draft law to the Parliament about the abolition of the Ajaria Security Ministry, linked to President Abashidze.

In the very beginning of May the tensions between Georgia’s central authorities and the Adjar Autonomous Republic increased again. On May 2 Adjarian forces blew up bridges connecting the region to the rest of Georgia. The Adjar leader called the decision a "preventive" measure against possible military action by the Georgian authorities against him. The bridge blasts coincided with the final day of large-scale maneuvers by the Georgian military, which were being conducted near the administrative border with Adjaria. As a response the President Saakashvili gave the republic 10 days to cease its violations of Georgian law and to disarm its paramilitaries.

The escalation of violence in Ajaria has been condemned on May 2, 2004 by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer who called it "extremely dangerous".

The FIDH recalls, that on March 28, 2004 parliamentary elections, President Saakashvili and its National Movement Democrats bloc obtained 67% of the vote. The leader of the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria and his Democratic Revival Union Party failed to overcome the seven percent barrier required to enter parliament, even though they won 52 % of the vote within Ajarian province.

The parliamentary elections were observed by both national and international organisations, including a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Despite serious violations in Ajaria and the unusually high parliamentary barrier of seven percent, which exclude the small parties from entering the national parliament, for the most part the election was fair. However, the national observers deplored rejections of appeals, psychological pressure and attempts of bribery especially in Kvemo Kartli region.

All those recent facts are contrary to the Human Rights norms. The International Community is waiting, since the Rose revolution, for a concrete step on the way to the Rule of law in Georgia.

The FIDH calls both Georgian and Adjarian sides to find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

The FIDH calls the Georgian authorities to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms in conformity with the international and regional instruments they ratified.

SIDIKI KABA

President
Last Update 3 May 2004

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