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UN Human Rights Chief Sums Up Georgia Visit

May 23, 2014
Civil Georgia

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who visited Georgia this week, hailed country’s “wide-ranging” and “thorough” human rights legislative reform, improved conditions in penitentiary, positive trends in the judiciary, but called for more oversight on law enforcement agencies and noted concerns over minority rights.

“Legislation has been adopted, drafted or is planned in virtually all major areas where there are clear deficiencies, and I do not recall visiting any country during my six years in office where such a wide-ranging and thorough programme of human rights legislative reform has been launched in such a short space of time,” she told journalists on May 21 and also stressed on importance of this legislation to be efficiently implemented.

During the visit she met the President, Prime Minister, and other senior government officials, as well as parliament speaker, chairman of the Supreme Court, Public Defender, civil society representatives, and also visited a settlement of internally displaced person and administrative boundary line with breakaway South Ossetia.

Judiciary, Penitentiary and Law Enforcement

Speaking about judiciary, the UN human rights chief pointed at upward trend of acquittal rates, saying that it is now becoming “more realistic” and judges have grown used to being “more independent both from the executive and from the prosecutors.” She also said that the judiciary shows “a greater inclination to demand that prosecutors properly justify their requests to place defendants in pre-trial detention”.

“It is essential that trials are seen to be fair, transparent and free from any hint of political retribution,” Pillay said.

On penitentiary system, she said that conditions in prisons, where “systematic torture and ill-treatment were rife”, have “significantly improved.”

“The number of prisoners has been dramatically reduced; there is much better health care; and reports of ill-treatment in prisons are now rare – although occasional allegations still emerge”, - Pillay said.

She called on the authorities to allow more non-governmental organizations to have access to the penitentiary for monitoring purposes in addition to already existing Public Defender’s national preventive mechanism.

The UN human rights chief also called on the authorities to establish an independent mechanism for investigating allegations of ill-treatment or other abuses in the penitentiary.

She has also suggested setting up of an independent investigative body to look into allegations of abuse by the police and other law enforcement agencies “to help remove the public’s doubts and suspicions over allegations of abuse, such as those relating to the case of former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili”.

The UN human rights chief has also called on the authorities to enact new rule of witness questioning, which was delayed  till December 31, 2015, “as soon as possible.” Since many allegations relate to ill-treatment of detainees during their initial period in police custody, she said, it is particularly important that questioning takes place before a judge, “rather than hidden from the public view in police stations or prosecutors’ offices”.

The authorities have cited need to prepare the law enforcement system for the new rule as the reason behind the delay of enacting these legislative amendments. The UN human rights chief urged the authorities to speed up the training of investigators so that the enactment of the new rule can be brought forward and put into practice.

She also noted concerns about illegal surveillance and welcomed the Parliament’s intention to pass with its first reading next week stricter legislative regulations to provide for more oversight on government’s surveillance practice. But the proposed bill leaves unaddressed major issue in this respect related to continued direct access of Interior Ministry’s to telecommunication service providers’ networks.

“I understand that certain complex but key elements, such as regulating the relationship between law enforcement agencies and mobile phone companies, remain to be finalized,” Pillay said.

Minority Rights

The UN human rights chief said that one of the issues that civil society representatives raised during a meeting with her was related to minority rights, in particular religious and ethnic groups, as well as of LGBT communities.

She welcomed adoption of the anti-discrimination law, but also echoed concerns of local rights groups, who are calling for the need to make it more efficient, including extending some of its elements to also cover the private sector.

“I have urged senior Government officials to speak out strongly and consistently in public in support of tolerance, stressing the importance of avoiding discrimination against any group. All violence and hate speech must be loudly and unequivocally condemned by political and religious leaders, and perpetrators of crimes should be prosecuted”, - Pillay said.

“The fact that Georgia still has a long way to go on this issue was illustrated by the LGBT community here deeming it necessary to go into hiding on May 17 in order to avoid repetitions of violent attacks on them during previous May 17 events,” she said.

“Similar resolution must be shown if the Government is to fulfill its commitment to improve the conditions facing religious and ethnic minorities, especially Georgia’s large Muslim community,” she added.

S.Ossetia – “One of the Most Inaccessible Places on Earth”

The UN human rights chief said that despite of “repeated efforts” her office has consistently been denied access to Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

She visited the village of Khurvaleti on the administrative border with South Ossetia, where local community has been divided by barbed wire fence installed by the Russian troops.

“As I saw for myself yesterday, the effect on local villagers on both sides of the wire fence is devastating,” Pillay said.

Pillay said that before her trip to Georgia, she met Russian ambassador in Geneva to “explain the purpose” of this visit.

“I have every intention of following up on that meeting, particularly after I saw for myself how much the people of Georgia are suffering as a result of this wire fence,” the UN human rights chief said and added that she would appeal the Russian side that human rights protection should be addressed.

She said that while some movement is allowed in and out of Abkhazia, especially to the Gali district, including for some UN agencies, South Ossetia “has become one of the most inaccessible places on earth, with no access permitted for international agencies, except the ICRC.”

“I am particularly concerned about the human rights situation inside South Ossetia. Reports suggest that living conditions are poor and getting poorer, affecting economic, social and cultural rights,” Pillay said.

“South Ossetia has become a black hole,” she continued. “Very little is known about what goes on inside the region, as it has grown increasingly difficult for South Ossetians to come to other parts of Georgia, as well as for IDPs to visit the one part of South Ossetia where some visits had been allowed“.

“Unfortunately, as things stand at present, the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not benefitting from the promise of significant human rights and rule of law reforms of the type that are currently being rolled out to Georgians”, - she said.