International Human Rights Day

On December 10, on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, the Public Defender of Georgia is summarizing the human rights situation in Georgia with this statement.

In 2021, the Public Defender has repeatedly criticized the Government for its approaches to managing the Covid-19 pandemic, which posed a real threat to the protection of human rights to life and health. In particular, the state information campaign related to vaccination was ineffective. In addition, the decisions to introduce or lift regulations against coronavirus were largely made in disregard of specific scientific evidence and best international standards (best examples of which were the introduction of a permanent green passport, the abolition of the obligation to wear a mask for a certain period of time, etc.). As a result, the vaccination rate in Georgia is very low, with only 37% of the adult population being fully vaccinated; the number of fully vaccinated population over 60 is also low - only about 37%. The low rate of vaccination of older persons is particularly alarming, as this group is highly susceptible to the novel coronavirus worldwide. The lethality rate is highest among the unvaccinated persons over 60 years of age. Unfortunately, the State failed to facilitate the vaccination process for this age group, as registration of those wishing to be vaccinated was possible only online, through a website, for a long period of time, which was often an insurmountable obstacle for older people.

As a result of ineffective measures taken against Covid-19, the country still has a high rate of virus infection, leading to the overcrowding of the health care sector. Unfortunately, the daily number of deaths is not substantially reducing, and as of December 9, Georgia ranks 7th worldwide according to the number of deaths per one million population.

In 2021, the local self-government elections were held in a highly polarized electoral environment, as in previous years. According to the information available to the Public Defender's Office, 69 persons were dismissed or harassed allegedly in a discriminatory manner, due to their political views; 59 opposition candidates were allegedly pressured and intimidated to make them withdraw their candidacies. As a result, with a few exceptions, they filed applications to withdraw their candidacies. 16 cases of alleged vote-buying were reported; In addition, the Public Defender became aware of 4 cases, where the employment contracts of acting public school principals were not renewed for alleged political reasons. The Public Defender shares the assessments of local and international observer organizations that the incidents of alleged pressure and intimidation of voters, and the intimidating environment have most likely affected the free will of some voters. Unfortunately, there were also many cases when journalists were prevented by criminal actions from carrying out their activities effectively.

During the year, there have been cases of obstruction of the realization of freedom of assembly by restricting citizens’ movement; in some cases, law enforcement officers did not allow demonstrators to set up tents. The harmful practice of detention of demonstrators for petty hooliganism or disobedience to the law enforcement officer's lawful request remained problematic, often failing to meet the requirement of necessity and constituting unjustified interference with freedom of assembly.

In terms of assessing the freedom of the media, the threatening and hostile environment that has existed in the country in recent times, especially in 2021, is worrying. In 2021, the Public Defender recorded dozens of cases of physical assault on representatives of the critical media. It was a common practice during the pre-election period to cynically treat journalists, especially representatives of the critical media and to make statements aimed at discrediting them.

The events of July 5 showed that the Georgian authorities not only failed to prevent violence against journalists and citizens in general, which put their health and lives in real danger, but moreover, the discriminatory statements by high-ranking officials incited such violence.

On July 5, 2021, 45 journalists and cameramen were granted victim status as a result of attacks by persons opposing Tbilisi Pride. Unfortunately, in connection with the violence that took place on July 5, the Georgian Prosecutor's Office has not charged any individual for organizing or inciting the group violence, despite the Public Defender's assessment that the publicly available evidence met the standard of probable cause for charging at least 2 persons.

In terms of the reform of the judiciary, an important political agreement was reached through the mediation of Western partners, according to which, on the basis of the recommendations of the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR, the selection of Supreme Court judges should have been suspended until the implementation of the fundamental reform. Unfortunately, the Parliament of Georgia did not take into account the above recommendations and it elected 10 judges to the Supreme Court for life on July 6[1] and December 1,[2], thus completing the selection process.

OSCE/ODIHR noted that there were no clear or predictable standards in the selection process of Supreme Court judges, which should have been a prerequisite for providing equal opportunities for all candidates. Their report also addressed conflicts of interest and various gaps in procedures that did not allow merit-based candidates to be selected.

It should be noted that the positions of 5 non-judge members of the High Council of Justice are still vacant and it is unclear on what grounds the Parliament is delaying their selection.

As for the high-profile criminal cases, at the end of 2021, the judicial proceedings related to the third President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, drew special public attention. During Saakashvili's hunger strike, the Special Penitentiary Service refused to bring the accused to court. The termination of the essential part of the medical treatment and the pending investigation in the State Security Service were named as reasons.

The Public Defender beleives that restricting the possibility of appearing before a court grossly violates the right to a fair trial enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia and the European Convention. The argument of the Penitentiary Service that the transfer of the prisoner would be a risk to his health due to hunger strike cannot be considered a substantiated argument, especially given that the Special Penitentiary Service did not rely on the medical report. Moreover, such practices may deprive other prisoners on hunger strike of the opportunity to participate in a trial. As for the refusal to escort Mikheil Saakashvili to court for alleged security reasons, it is noteworthy that the procedural law does not provide for such a thing. It should be noted that today Mikheil Saakashvili has access to court and he has twice participated in the trial in person.

As for the release of footage showing the transfer of Mikheil Saakashvili to Medical Establishment No. 18 against his will by the Ministry of Justice/Special Penitentiary Service on November 11, 2021, the Public Defender assessed it as a violation of the prisoner's right to honor, dignity and privacy. It should be noted that this fact was similarly assessed by the State Inspector's Office.

In 2021, there have been large-scale and systemic violations of the right to privacy. Information about alleged illegal wiretapping and surveillance was reported several times during the year. On March 21, one of the TV stations broadcast a confessional interview with a former law enforcer, who talked about the illegal surveillance of politicians, including in Ana Dolidze's house. Later, Ana Dolidze confirmed the accuracy of the factual data indicated in the interview. An investigation has been launched into the incident, but as far as we are aware, no one has been charged yet.

An unprecedented leak of materials reflecting covert surveillance took place on September 13. The media were provided with thousands of files that were allegedly obtained illegally, mostly containing information about the private lives of clergy, in the form of protocols and their analysis. The documents also contained substantive information about the communications of these individuals. It is also noteworthy that a number of individuals confirmed the authenticity of the communications reflected in the materials.

Given the unprecedented volume of the files and the confirmation of the authenticity by a number of people, the Public Defender beleives that the materials were obtained as a result of illegal covert surveillance by state authorities. Unfortunately, this type of uncontrolled surveillance is based on the existing legislation that allows security authorities to directly access mobile operators' servers, without any control, which facilitates the possibility of illegal surveillance and reduces the risks of its detection. This legislation was appealed by the Public Defender of Georgia to the Constitutional Court, which completed the consideration of the case on its merits in 2018, but has not yet delivered a judgment.

The Georgian Prosecutor's Office launched a criminal investigation shortly after the mentioned incident. Unfortunately, the Public Defender's Office was not given an opportunity to access the criminal case materials. The Prosecutor's Office rejected the relevant request of the Public Defender.

It is noteworthy that so far the Parliament of Georgia has not used the parliamentary oversight mechanisms at its disposal, which would have enabled it to summon the heads of responsible state agencies to the Parliament. It is also possible for the Parliament to consider the establishment of a fact-finding commission.

As for the rights situation of persons detained and deprived of their liberty, who are under the effective control of the State, it is noteworthy that those arrested in 2021 continued to report cases of abuse of power by law enforcement officials and physical and psychological violence after arrest. This was especially problematic in relation to those detained for administrative offences. Timely access to a lawyer and provision of information to the family members about arrests remained problematic. The family members and lawyers of persons detained for administrative offences during protests had not been informed about the whereabouts of the detainees for a long period of time, or have not been informed at all. Consequently, lawyers were unable to visit their clients in a timely manner, talk to them, or agree on the defence strategy. In some cases, unfortunately, the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not provide timely information to the Public Defender's Office.

As in previous years, the lack of an obligation to use body cameras remains a challenge. Another challenge is that the police establishments, where detainees/citizens may be present are not fully covered by video surveillance system.

Informal methods of governing penitentiary establishments with the aim of silencing prisoners, banning them from talking about problems and maintaining illusory order remain a serious challenge. This issue is especially problematic in semi-open establishments. Informal governance is characterized by physical and severe psychological inter-prisoner violence.

Provision of adequate medical services to prisoners was problematic in 2021. Problems with both physical and mental health were identified in a number of institutions. Most complaints were received by the Public Defender's Office on these very issues. In 2021, the practice of transferring prisoners to de-escalation rooms was maintained, which the Public Defender considers to be ill-treatment. The Public Defender has filed a number of constitutional lawsuits with the Constitutional Court to protect the rights of prisoners.

In early 2021, representatives of the Public Defender became the object of numerous verbal attacks on the territory of various semi-open establishments, which were directly or indirectly organized by the prison administration. Following this, the Public Defender made a statement that she was temporarily suspending preventive visits to the penitentiary establishments.

In May 2021, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture paid a special visit to Georgia to inspect the situation in semi-open establishments. Following the visit, it was publicly announced by the Minister of Justice that representatives of the Public Defender's Office would not face any problems in carrying out their activities.

In terms of the management of the epidemic in penitentiary establishments, it should be noted positively that most of the medical staff of the establishments have been vaccinated. Vaccination of prisoners and PCR testing once in 2 weeks were actively carried out. Quarantine spaces have also been allocated in the establishments.

In 2021, as in previous years, the inconsistent practice of releasing convicts on parole and mitigating the unserved part of a sentence was particularly problematic. Local councils often do not substantiate decisions and do not indicate a specific motivation for giving one criterion more attention than others. The decisions made by them are mainly of uniform and contain only a formal reference to the criteria used by the council when making a negative decision in a particular case. The practice of different decisions by local councils in cases with identical data is also problematic.

During the reporting period, freedom of movement in the occupied territories was still the most important challenge. The exercise of this right has been particularly difficult in the context of the Covid pandemic. The population faced difficulties in complying with the 5-day mandatory quarantine imposed by the Georgian authorities on citizens moving from the territory of occupied Abkhazia to the controlled territory. During 2020-2021, there were a number of accidents when, due to the restrictions imposed, residents of Abkhazia, at the cost of their own lives, resorted to various detours to reach the territory controlled by Georgia.

The vicious practice of illegal detentions on the occupation line and imprisonment, as well as the beating and ill-treatment of prisoners, and prohibition of education in the mother tongue, remains problematic both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The situation of internally displaced families living in buildings posing an increased risk to life and/or health remains a challenge. The procedures for resettling them from such buildings are problematic, and the statistics on such buildings need to be clarified and refined to help the State better understand the scale of the problem.

In 2021, the situation of the right to equality was still critical. Unfortunately, the rights situation of women, persons with disabilities, members of the LGBT+ community, and members of non-dominant religious and ethnic groups has not improved this year either.

In total, in 2021, the Public Defender examined 141 cases of alleged discrimination, most of which - 27% - were cases of alleged discrimination based on different or political views, 17% were cases of alleged discrimination based on sex/gender, 12% - disability, 9% - gender identity, 8% - ethnicity, 4% - religion, and 23% - other grounds.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls; Women’s access to health services, including sexual and reproductive health services, has been reduced. The implementation of preventive measures or effective management of specific cases of early marriage also remains a challenge.

Domestic violence and violence against women remain problematic, as well as taking effective prevention measures, improving the victim protection and assistance system, and creating opportunities for women's economic empowerment.

The femicide statistics are still alarming. During the 9 months of 2021 (January-September), there were 13 killings of women, 5 of which contained elements of domestic crime, while 8 cases had other motives. There were also 20 attempted killings of women, 11 of which contained elements of domestic crime.

It is alarming that the lives and health of LGBT+ people are still in danger, as evidenced by the attacks on them. Death threats, damages to offices and other offences against LGBT+ human rights activists have become almost daily occurrences.

Unfortunately, the participation of national minorities in the decision-making process is still low. The activities of consultative mechanisms do not have the form of an institutionalized dialogue with the highest legislative or executive bodies of Georgia. Taking effective steps to strengthen consultative mechanisms is a challenge.

In the direction of freedom of religion, unfortunately, the decision of the Government of Georgia made an exception to the Covid regulations only for Orthodox religious holidays. The argument of the government officials that the privilege was granted only to Orthodox Christians, as they represent the majority of the population of Georgia, was disturbing. In addition, despite the wave of anti-Semitic speeches by various religious figures, Georgian government officials limited themselves to making general statements.

It is unfortunate to note that much of the covert surveillance materials allegedly obtained by the State Security Service illegally and uploaded to social media platforms on September 13 prove the total, comprehensive and large-scale nature of control and surveillance of the activities of religious organizations, presumably for the purpose of collecting and disseminating discrediting information about them and human rights defenders. This is a gross interference with the right to privacy as well as freedom of religion.

Protecting the rights of persons with disabilities remains a challenge. The challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic have created additional problems. In 2021, a number of systemic problems were identified in terms of health care, including access to medical facilities and services, as well as difficulties in communicating with medical personnel. The socio-economic situation of these people and employment prospects have deteriorated. Some of them still remained behind the anti-crisis economic plan developed by the State in response to the pandemic.

This year, the Parliament of Georgia ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is important for ensuring the protection of the rights of these persons through international mechanisms. The establishment of the Interagency Coordination Committee for the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the Government of Georgia should also be welcomed.

Unfortunately, it should be noted that no fair system of granting disability status has been introduced yet, which would focus on psychological and social factors of a person, in addition to medical factors. The amount of social package defined by the current model, in addition to not being tailored to the individual needs of a person, cannot meet even the minimum needs of persons with disabilities.

The services provided by the social rehabilitation and child care state programme have not changed substantially since last year. In almost all cases, the geographical coverage of the services is problematic, for the most part it is not possible to cover all children/persons with disabilities across the country and the services have waiting lists.

During 2021, the Public Defender's Office monitored 12 hospitals/shelters and 15 outpatient facilities. As in previous years, patients in psychiatric institutions become victims of violence and their legal safegaurds are neglected. Institutions do not meet even the minimum standards of psycho-social rehabilitation applied in the country, the existing infrastructural condition does not meet international or national standards. The epidemiological measures taken in psychiatric institutions are unsufficent. Community-based housing is not sufficiently developed for people with mental health problems. Patients have nowhere to go and therefore they stay in psychiatric institutions for a long time.

One of the main challenges is the issue of long-term care for older people, both in terms of institutional and family care. The so-called "home care" programmes have not been developed at the state or local self-government level. The Public Defender has been actively trying to draw attention to the importance of this programme in local self-governments for years. The pandemic made the need to implement a home care programme for older people even clearer.

Deficiencies in the prevention of violence against children, effective response to similar cases, protection of and assistance to victims have a negative impact on the scale of the problem. The leading challenges in the child protection system are still the faultiness of targeted programmes, shortage of human resources and lack of preventive measures. Under the novel coronavirus pandemic, child poverty has increased even more, while the programmes existing in the country fail to provide long-term support to the families living in poverty or to enhance their social function.

The level of public awareness of children’s labour rights and their protection from harmful forms of labour is low; The public is, in some cases, tolerant of such facts. In addition, due to lack of resources and staff focused on the elimination of child labour on the streets, it is not possible to prevent cases in a timely manner or to properly identify the needs of children living and working on the street.

In 2021, the events related to the Ninotsminda Orphanage made it even clearer that the process of deinstitutionalization of large institutions is inefficient in Georgia.

As you are aware, through the efforts of the Public Defender and civil society, part of children living in the institution has been reunited with biological families or placed in other forms of state care, while some of them continue to live in the institution. (As of November 22, there are 15 minors living in the institution). Although the Public Defender is given the opportunity to conduct independent monitoring after the change of the head of the institution and positive changes have been observed in the treatment of children, provision of food and health care, the institution, due to its size and institutional arrangement, still fails to meet the best interests and individual needs of children. Consequently, it is necessary to continue the deinstitutionalization process and transfer the juveniles remaining there to biological families or family-like environments.

The homeless are one of the most vulnerable and socially excluded groups in society. It is noteworthy that some local self-governments do not have the databases of homeless people at all, while in municipalities where the rule of registration of the homeless has been adopted, due to the ambiguity of the legal definition of a homeless person, there are different criteria for assessing a person as homeless, which leads to inconsistent approaches and exclusion of homeless people from the definition of different groups.

In 2021, the Public Defender applied to the Constitutional Court with a request to declare the rule of granting homeless status unconstitutional.

As for the labour rights, it is important to fully implement the positive legislative changes of the past year (establishment of a full-fledged Labour Inspectorate) in practice. For this, it is necessary to complete the staffing of the Labour Inspectorate in the shortest possible time. The existing human resources are not sufficient to fully implement the labour inspection mandate, especially given that the Labour Inspectorate is responsible for monitoring compliance with Covid regulations as well.

At the same time, it is important to further strengthen the information campaign to raise public awareness of the powers of the Labour Inspectorate, so that both employees and employers have information about their rights and responsibilities, as well as the mandate of the Labour Inspectorate.

The results of our work show that the State faces a number of important challenges and needs in terms of the protection of human rights and freedoms. The Public Defender expresses her full readiness to cooperate with state agencies in the process of working on the challenges reviewed in this statement.

[1] 6 judges

[2] 4 judges

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