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First They Came for the Human Rights NGOs

07.09.2006
7._sek__da_17_agvisto.gifThe doorbell rang. Outside were four men, three from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and one from the Presidential Guard. They demanded the names, home addresses and phone numbers of everyone who worked for the peaceful human rights organisation – all in the name of protecting the President.

You would be forgiven for thinking the above took place during the darkest days of the Soviet Union, but these events took place in Tbilisi in June. Nor is this the first time that a human rights NGO has been subject to government intimidation since the Rose Revolution.

As a visiting Englishman, I didn't know what to expect when I showed up to work with the Georgian run Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre (HRIDC). I had heard that NGOs in former Soviet states sometimes suffer intimidation, but the reality hits home when it is your colleagues who are on the receiving end.

During my time with HRIDC, the organisation has had several ‘visits’ by government officials. On the 1st and 2nd of February, representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs came to the organisation in order to ‘get to know the organisation's activities better’. Those working for the NGO reported that that the real purpose of the visits was to frighten staff.

On February 7th 2006, Major Tengiz Tkebuchava, an employee of the Counter Terrorism Department within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, called Ucha Nanuashvili, HRIDC's Executive Director and informed him that the Head of the Department, Gia Gabunia, wanted to have a talk with him.

Tkebuchava did not elaborate on the reasons why Nanuashvili was being summoned to the Ministry. When questioned on this, Tkebuchava simply answered that they would "like to find out more about the activities of the organization in general". Nanuashvili stated that before he went anywhere, they must first provide him with an official letter, clearly stating why he was wanted. Upon hearing this, Tkebuchava demanded that Nanuashvili take himself to the Ministry immediately, threatening that if he disobeyed he would be brought there by force.

HRIDC was also the target of threats and intimidation several times last year. Zaur Kvaratskhelia, a representative of the Presidential Administration, labelled Nanuashvili an informer and a traitor for daring to highlight discrimination against ethnic minorities. In addition to this, threatening telephone calls were made by Niko Natenadze, the Prime Minister's advisor.
 
Nanuashvili later explained why he thought his NGO attracted this type of negative attention. “The human rights reports, published regularly by the Centre, as well as court cases involving high-ranking officials could be the reason for this campaign," said the Executive Director, adding, "They are only phone calls now but it might continue. One thing is clear to me, this incident warrants a serious response.” No response by any government body to these incidents ever materialised.
Against this backdrop of NGO harassment, a bill to combat 'extremism' has been proposed by MPs. What exactly 'extremism' will mean in this context has yet to be fully defined. Unless it is carefully drafted, the legislation could be used to silence legitimate criticism of the government. Civil Georgia has already reported National Movement Party MP Nika Gvaramia as saying the law will target political extremists who make “treacherous statements”.
Those proposing the legislation deny that it poses any threat to society. Non-governmental organizations in Tbilisi, already subject to occasional government intimidation, disagree. Opposition parties are also concerned and a number of opposition party members have said that they feel the laws may be used against them. The arrests of prominent Giorgadze supporters last week, albeit seemingly justified, only adds to feelings of unease in society.
There are nevertheless many that insist we should trust the government, that their intentions are good and that they came to power to end corruption and human rights abuses. Whatever their intentions may be, there is certainly a vast concentration of power in the hands of the National Movement Party. The Party holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament and there is an absence of strong political opposition. The unwillingness of the courts to challenge government actions adds to the power of the executive.

Despite their almost total monopoly on power, those within the government still appear to be resorting to unethical methods to defend their interests. The Ministry of Interior allegedly puts pressure on the television channel ‘Rustavi 2’, causing a popular TV presenter to resign in protest of government censorship. Top government officials are accused of orchestrating the murder of young banker, Sandro Girgvliani, and the ensuing investigation has been condemned by the victim’s relatives and civil society as a cover-up.

In May 2004, a Human Rights Officer with the US Embassy in Tbilisi was forced out of his job by the Georgian and US governments. He believed his punishment resulted from his refusal to alter his reports to mask the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. The diplomat later wrote to HRIDC to tell them that their work 'demonstrates that no amount of intimidation can prevent the truth about the human rights situation from being made public.'

The staff at HRIDC hopes that in the future they will be able to carry on their work unhindered. In the meantime, they say they will continue to refuse to disclose their personal details to officials who do not have any legal justification for requiring such information.
This month, the possibility of an 'anti-extremism' bill will be discussed by Parliament - whether it is a genuine threat to freedom of speech will soon become evident. If the legislation turns out to be as repressive as some predict, this could be bad news for Georgian NGOs. Organizations such as HRIDC may have less luck in the future at defending themselves from officials emboldened by new laws.
There is a saying: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps the Saakashvili regime will ultimately prove the old adage wrong, but from where I am sitting the evidence does not look good at present.

Jack Ziebell

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