Human Rights Watch: Open Letter to President Bush
Human Rights Watch
Open Letter to President Bush
June 27, 2006
President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing to urge you to use your forthcoming meeting with President Mikhail Saakashvili to reaffirm the importance of human rights in Georgia.
Despite some progress in recent years to rectify long-standing human rights violations, the Georgian government is backsliding on many of its human rights commitments, particularly as a result of policies and measures it is implementing as part of its campaign against corruption and organized crime. This campaign rightly is a top priority for the Georgian government and its foreign partners. However, it has also led to new legislation and policies on the treatment of prisoners, the use of force by law enforcement officers, and judicial independence that run counter to the government’s international human rights commitments and the core principles of the Rose Revolution.
Your administration has pointed to Georgia as a hopeful model for democratic change in its region. But Georgia’s democratic gains remain fragile, and what we are seeing today are the warning signs of significant regression. If this trend continues, Georgia will no longer be a positive example to others; on the contrary, its problems will only hearten those in the region who want to see its experiment fail. The time to raise these issues with the Georgian government is now. No friend of Georgia is in a better position to do so than you, given the close relationship you have forged with President Saakashvili, and the deep engagement of the United States on issues profoundly important to his government, from energy security to the frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
For these reasons, we urge you to raise the issues elaborated below with President Saakashvili.
Prison conditions and treatment of prisoners
Although the Georgian government has for years acknowledged that conditions in penitentiary facilities fall below international standards, it has taken few steps to address this problem, and in recent months has made legislative and policy changes that further restrict prisoners’ rights, as part of its policy of zero tolerance for crime and its attempts to eliminate the influence of organized crime bosses in prison. Human Rights Watch research in May 2006 in several penitentiary facilities revealed systematic violations of prisoners’ rights, even in two newly built prisons which physically meet international standards. Medical care and nutrition remain wholly inadequate throughout the penitentiary system. As a result of recent policy changes, inmates reported not being able to correspond with their family members at all and in some cases were denied the opportunity to meet with their lawyers. Family visits are increasingly restricted both by prison administration officials on an ad hoc basis as well as by recent amendments to the law on the penitentiary that reduces the number of visits guaranteed by law.
Since December 2005, there has been a serious increase in the use of violence by law enforcement officers in prison facilities. In some facilities, inmates reported periods of frequent beatings and regular degrading treatment such as repeated strip searches conducted during “inspections.” In at least one instance, government forces have used lethal force against prisoners. On March 27, 2006, special forces used automatic gunfire in a Tbilisi prison to put down a disturbance that the government characterized as a riot, resulting in the deaths of at least seven inmates. Although a few guns capable of firing rubber bullets were used in this incident, officials employed no other non-lethal forms of riot control before entering the prison armed with automatic weapons. Security forces have used violence in a number of other disturbances, but no investigations have been undertaken to determine whether the force used was proportionate.
In response to the March 27 events, the OSCE called for an independent inquiry to be established to “investigate the events, including allegations of a disproportionate use of force by government troops.” The government refused to do so, and instead opened an internal inquiry to investigate the allegation that a riot was being planned for an unspecified date. The investigation was taken over by the General Prosecutor’s Office, but no specific investigation is being conducted into the deaths of inmates and the actions of law enforcement officers. We hope that you will inquire about the progress of the investigation into the March 27 riot and express concern over the recent legal and policy changes that further restrict prisoners’ rights.
Use of lethal force by law enforcement officers
In 2005 and 2006 there has been a rise in the number of suspects killed by Georgian law enforcement officers during special operations and at the moment of arrest. Twenty-one suspects were killed in 2005, and in the first four months of 2006 seventeen suspects were killed, including seven who participated in the March 27 disturbance referred to above. In one instance, over fifty bullet wounds were recorded on one suspect’s body. Senior officials, including President Saakashvili and the Minister of Interior have made public statements supporting a “zero tolerance” policy for crime, and many of their statements have condoned the use of lethal force. The government consistently refuses to investigate the actions of law enforcement agents involved in the killing of suspects and has repeatedly violated the presumption of innocence for those killed, by issuing statements praising the professionalism of law enforcement agents in eliminating “criminals.” This trend threatens to undermine the still fragile public trust in law enforcement and in the country’s leadership to ensure accountability and avoid the excesses of state power of previous governments. We hope that you will express concern over this trend and encourage thorough and independent investigations into each incident involving the loss of life.
Attacks on the independence of the judiciary
Constitutional amendments in early 2004 increased the Georgian president’s authority to dismiss and appoint judges. The government then began an effort to address corruption in the judiciary, but the processes for removing allegedly corrupt judges have lacked transparency and due process. For example, 21 of 37 Supreme Court judges resigned in 2005, many of them under pressure. Nine judges who had been pressured to resign chose to stay in office, but they soon were the subject of disciplinary proceedings and were suspended from office. Six judges have appealed against the disciplinary proceedings which addressed matters related to the judges’ interpretation of the law rather than issues of ethics or conduct subject to disciplinary evaluation. These steps have had a chilling effect on new and remaining judges, who recognize their positions as tenuous and their decisions subject to the approval of the executive. We encourage you to emphasize the independence of the judiciary as fundamental to the rule of law.
We hope you will raise these important issues during your meetings with President Saakashvili and other top Georgian leaders. Many in Georgia will be looking to you to express concern about the government’s recent backsliding on human rights and to reinforce the commitments espoused by the leaders of the Rose Revolution. As you know, the government of Georgia values its relationship with the United States very much. Addressing the government’s regressive policies now is crucial to reversing these negative trends outlined above and ensuring protection of human rights and the rule of law in Georgia in the future.
We thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Washington, DC Office