Public Defender’s Parliamentary Report 2020

On March 31, 2021, the Public Defender’s Office submitted an annual report on the sitaution of human rights and freedoms to the Parliament of Georgia. The 486-page report reviews the challenges identified and progress made in 2020 in terms of protection of human rights enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia, as well as the implementation of Public Defender’s recommendations and proposals.

The first chapter of the parliamentary report reviews the challenges facing the State in terms of the protection of the right to life. In 2020, the Public Defender's Office examined 17 cases of the death of prisoners that occurred in 2015-2017. The study of the case materials showed that according to the post-mortem examinations, the prisoners had significant health problems that were not treated in the penitentiary institutions. Unfortunately, the investigation was only aimed at establishing the final cause of deaths and did not try to find out whether or not prisoners had received appropriate medical care.

Just like last year, the State Health Programme 2021 does not provide for the examination or treatment for physical health problems of persons placed in psychiatric hospitals. As a result, improper treatment and neglect of risk factors lead to the patients’ deaths.

The shortcomings in the investigation of the death of Giorgi Shakarashvili also need to be noted. According to the Public Defender, the investigative activities carried out at the initial stage of the investigation were incomplete. Some of the shortcomings were later remedied by the investigation, however, the rights of persons involved in the case were allegedly violated by the police. The case of Temirlan Machalikashvili also needs to be noted, where a number of issues remained unanswered by the investigation. As for the case of the murder of minors on Khorava Street, the inquiry into the case is pending.

In 2020, 154 applications were filed with the Public Defender's Office, in which citizens referred to ill-treatment. According to the applicants, the alleged perpetrators of ill-treatment were employees of penitentiary establishments in 77 cases and police officers - in 60 cases. The applications also referred to the poor conditions in the penitentiary establishments and protracted investigations.

The monitoring conducted on the basis of a special methodology revealed that the worsening trend of treatment of citizens by police during administrative detentions continued in 2020 as well. In 34.3% of the cases examined by us (463 suspicious cases), bodily injuries were reported during or after detention. The respective figures were 26.8% in 2018 and 31.8% in 2019.

In the cases processed by the Public Defender's Office, a number of detainees indicated ill-treatment, including beatings by police officers in a police vehicle (either while parked or driven). The vehicle is mentioned as a place of alleged ill-treatment in the report of the State Inspector as well.

Like in previous years, the main problem in the penitentiary system remains informal governance, which creates a violent environment in the establishments and affects a large number of prisoners. In 2020, the Public Defender’s Office examined cases (related to the events that took place in 2013-2020), in which prisoners provided detailed information to the investigative bodies about the informal criminal governance scheme, persons involved in it and alleged criminal acts committed by them (threatening, beating, extortion, economic crime, abuse of power by staff, etc.). Although both prisoners and witnesses, including representatives of the prison administrations, confirmed the existence of a similar scheme, the internal monitoring bodies of the Penitentiary Service or the Prosecutor's Office did not respond effectively to these cases by bringing perpetrators to justice, and only few procedural and investigative activities were carried out.

The Public Defender assesses the frequent practice of placing prisoners (including juvenile defendants) in the de-escalation and solitary confinement cells for a long period of time, without substantiation, as ill-treatment.

The 2020 monitoring again showed that the provision of timely and quality somatic (physical) health care services is problematic in penitentiary institutions. The practice of full examination of prisoners is also maintained, during which prisoners are fully stripped off their clothes.

The cases of violence in psychiatric institutions were again detected in 2020, which included physical and verbal abuse of patients by staff, as well as inter-patient conflicts and violence. Frequent and vicious practices of applying physical and chemical restraints remain problematic, while the conditions in which patients have to live and receive treatment equal ill-treatment.

The ineffective investigation of alleged offences of law enforcement officials by the Prosecutor’s Office remains a systemic problem. In this regard, it should be noted that within the framework of the investigations launched on the basis of 107 proposals sent by the Public Defender to the Prosecutor's Office in 2013-2019, only three police officers were charged and only one person was identified as a victim. The situation regarding the investigation of the June 20 events remains unchanged. The Public Defender considers that the investigation is focused only on identifying the criminal actions of individual law enforcment officers, but does not provide a full systemic analysis of the events or establish the scope of responsibility of high officials.

Despite the fact that one police officer was charged in the juvenile Luka Siradze case, the Public Defender considers that the case contains several important circumstances, which may indicate the guiltiness of other persons as well. The case materials show that one of the police officers tried to influence witnesses to make them give a testimony desirable to that police officer. At the same time, one of the main witnesses changed his testimony, whereas the initial testimony referred to the responsibility of other police officers as well. The Public Defender applied to the Prosecutor General's Office to investigate the above circumstances and launch an investigation, but the Prosecutor General's Office did not endorse the proposal.

The case of Temur Abazov was particularly concerning in 2020, who was accused of putting a person in an inhuman and degrading situation and organizing the public spread of footage showing the above. At the final stage of the trial, the Prosecutor General's Office dropped one of the two serious charges (organization of the spread of the footage) filed against him, without substantiation, and deprived the court of the opportunity to hold a hearing on one of the crimes, thus facilitating the acquittal of the defendant.

The chapter on the right to liberty and security reviews the practice of parole. Although all international mechanisms called for the states to release more prisoners due to the pandemic, the rate of parole reduced in 2020 compared to the previous year. In particular, 1,279 convicts were released on parole in 2019 and only 830 in 2020. However, the mitigation of the unserved part of the sentence increased in comparison with 2019.

The chapter on the right to a fair trial pays special attention to the appointment of judges, the electronic programme of case distribution and issues related to the disciplinary responsibilities of judges. The Public Defender considers that given the institutional challenges in the judiciary, extreme irregularities and lack of transparency during the selection of Supreme Court judges, the existing situation paves the way for future discussions on more radical interference in the judiciary.

The pandemic-related regulations affected the judiciary and the rights situation of the citizens dealing with the judiciary. Providing fast and effective justice was still problematic.

In the context of the right to a fair trial, we reviewed cases in which administration of justice was/is characterized by significant shortcomings. Among them was the investigation into the beating of former Auditor General Lasha Tordia, which was protracted for a particularly long time and was conducted under improper article, which hampered the administration of justice and finally resulted in the acquittal of one of the main defendants; The report assesses the violation of Giorgi Rurua's right of defence and termination of Nikanor Melia's parliamentary authority, as well as deficiencies identified in the cartographers' case - the violation of the principle of legality and the risk of using justice for political or other purposes.

Various cases of the violation of the right to privacy were detected during the reporting period. Among them were the cases of alleged illegal wiretapping of Georgian MP Salome Samadashvili, as well as alleged wiretapping of a TV Pirveli journalist and a member of the United National Movement. Despite the request of the Public Defender, the cases of the disclosure of confidential conversations and release of recordings are not being effectively investigated, which should ultimately lead to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrator.

Effective communication with the outside world is especially important for persons placed in closed institutions. In terms of private life, the Public Defender does not consider the compensatory measures taken in favor of prisoners during the pandemic to be insufficient. Foreign prisoners are virtually unable to communicate effectively with their family members. Communication with family members is also problematic for patients of psychiatric facilities, who have limited access to telephone.

With regard to the protection of the right to equality, the Public Defender positively assesses the significant legislative changes made during 2020. However, the epidemiological situation had a negative impact on the effective realization of the right to equality. Most obstacles were faced by women, members of religious minorities, LGBT+ community and persons with disabilities. In 2020, the Public Defender reviewed 113 new cases of alleged discrimination, 18% of which were committed on the ground of sex/gender and 9% - on the ground of disability. 12% and 9% were related to unequal treatment due to different opinions and political views respectively.

Labour relations were one of the most vulnerable areas of discrimination during the reporting period. The cases of discrimination against journalists were also identified. Sexual harassment, which mainly took place in the workplace or while receiving medical care, remains a challenge.

In terms of gender equality, it is welcome that the parliamentary gender quota mechanism was introduced in 2020. The average income rates of women and men are still different. Women spend 3 times more time on unpaid family work than men in Georgia. The burden of unpaid domestic labour of women increased during the pandemic. Numerous problems remain in terms of effective realization of women's sexual and reproductive health and rights.

One of the main challenges in the reporting period remained gender-based killings of women (femicide). Statistics show that the number of femicide cases increases from year to year. However, compared to 2019, the rate of reporting violence has not increased and it can even be said, that it decreased in 2020. This indicates that during the pandemic, women have been left face-to-face with abusers, which increased the risks of violence, but reduced the rate of detection. According to the Prosecutor General's Office, 24 women were murdered in 2020, 15 out of which contained signs of domestic crime. In addition, signs of domestic crime were found in 17 out of 27 cases of attempted murders of women. In some cases, femicide could not be avoided despite the fact that victim had reported violence.

In the reporting year, the Parliament did not support amendments to the defective norm on "rape" (Article 137) in the Criminal Code of Georgia, which should be assessed negatively. In terms of combating trafficking, the rate of detection and the number of people using services are low.

The most important challenge remains both prevention and effective management of early marriage and engagement. The distance learning during the pandemic made it even more difficult for social workers to detect such cases and examine them in a timely manner. Coordination and referral mechanism between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, educational institutions and the Social Service is faulty.

No significant steps have been taken to improve the rights situation of LGBT+ individuals.

In terms of freedom of expression, the media environment is pluralistic, but quite polarized. The decisions made by Adjara TV due to the different opinion of journalists and open criticism of the management by them was assessed by the Public Defender as a violation of the labour rights of journalists and/or direct discrimination against them.

The lack of full statistics on the obstruction of professional activities, other criminal acts committed against journalists due to their activities, as well as the safety of media representatives when covering rallies, remained problematic.

In recent years, there had been a sad trend of legislative initiatives aimed at restricting freedom of expression at the national level, which was replaced by the control of the content of programmes during the reporting period. An example of this was the decision made by the Regulatory Commission towards the Main Channel. According to the Public Defender, the National Communications Commission found the Main Channel to be a violator as a result of improper interpretation of the law, which has a detrimental effect on the realization of freedom of expression by broadcasters.

A lot of political and other assemblies of different scales throughout the last year once again showed that the State improperly fulfills its obligations to ensure the full realization of freedom of assembly. On November 8, 2020, disproportionate force was once again used against persons protesting the results of the parliamentary elections, when law enforcement officers tried to disperse a rally outside the Georgian Central Election Commission building. Contrary to the requirements of the law, the demonstrators had not been warned before the use of force. As in previous years, law enforcers actively resorted to administrative detention of demonstrators for petty hooliganism and disobedience to the lawful request of law enforcement officers, which often fails to meet the requirement of necessity and represents unjustifiable interference with freedom of assembly. The exercise of freedom of assembly faced particular challenges in the light of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions imposed for the prevention of the virus. It should also be noted that demonstrators were prevented from using certain items, such as firewood.

The 2020 parliamentary report devotes a separate chapter to freedom of information. Closing public information on the ground of personal data protection and neglecting the public interest were challenges encountered by representatives of the media and human rights defenders in 2020. The Georgian law on freedom of information is flawed and needs to be fundamentally reformed, which began almost eight years ago and has not yet been completed. In addition, it is important for the country to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents of 18 June 2009, which Georgia signed as soon as the Convention was adopted.

One of the main challenges in 2020 was to hold parliamentary elections in a fair and equal environment. The elections were held in an extremely tense environment; There were reports of physical confrontations and violent incidents, including attacks on representatives of the media. Public sources spread information on alleged cases of confrontations, violation of the secrecy of casting a vote, alleged control of the will of the voter, bribery; All this negatively affected the public interest in holding elections in a peaceful environment; The exercise of the right to vote was also affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It is noteworthy that local observer organizations and the civil society sector rated the 2020 parliamentary elections as "the least democratic and free" among the elections held during the rule of the Georgian Dream. According to the final report of the OSCE/ODIHR EOM, the elections were held in a competitive environment and, in general, fundamental freedoms were respected. According to the organization, the line between the ruling party and the State was often blurred, which reduced public confidence in some aspects of the election process.

After the elections, the Government undertook political responsibility for the electoral reform. The Public Defender's Office is also involved in the working group. We hope that the electoral reform will be carried out successfully and the legislation will be formulated in a way that is fully in line with international standards and best practices.

The situation of human rights defenders was still problematic – the unfortunate trend of verbal and physical assaults, intimidation, unacceptable practice of making statements aimed at discrediting them, including by high-ranking political officials. Attacks by radical groups on the Tbilisi Pride office should be noted as well. It is also worth noting that the national legislation does not define the concept of human rights defenders, which has hindered the detection of offences committed against them and the production of relevant statistics over the years.

2020 was the hardest year for the conflict-affected population. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the de facto authorities of Tskhinvali had completely restricted the freedom of movement at the so-called checkpoint, which is why the number of people who die due to the lack of proper medical care in the occupied territory has been increasing for more than a year now. In addition, unfortunately, it should be noted that during 2020, the attempts to swim across the Enguri River and bypass the occupation line in order to get to Zugdidi resulted in two accidents. As in previous years, the Public Defender focuses in this chapter on illegal detentions and ill-treatment of citizens, including the cases of Vazha Gaprindashvili, Genadi Bestaev, Irakli Bebua, Zaza Gakheladze, Ramaz Begeluri, Mirian Taziashvili and Khvicha Mghebrishvili.

The rights situation of women and girls living in the occupied territories and the realization of the right to education are concerning.

In terms of the realization of the right to health, the Georgian health care system faced a big challenge in 2020 like many other countries. In particular, the ineffectiveness of patient protection mechanisms remained a particular problem. The cases of delayed hospitalization and treatment in October-November 2020 and, in some cases, patients’ deaths, need to be especially underlined. Unfortunately, the above cases have not been examined, nor information about the measures taken has been provided to the public so far. The rights situation of the medical personnel was grave. According to a survey conducted in 2019, support medical staff worked more than 40 hours and 84.6% of them were paid less than GEL 500, and none of them received overtime pay either on working or non-working days. Despite a number of measures taken, the population still has little access to cheap medicines, while according to the Georgian National Statistics Office, prices have risen by 9.7 percent in the health care sector.

An important event in 2020 was the reform of labour legislation and the decision to grant a full mandate to the labour inspectorate to oversee the protection of labour rights. It is noteworthy that, the number of deaths in the workplace has declined after 2018, but it still remains alarmingly high. In particular, 59 cases of death in the workplace were reported in 2018, 45 - in 2019 and 39 - in 2020. The analysis of the labour inspection data shows that employers do not take appropriate preventive measures to protect the safety of employees or other persons, and therefore, in order to minimize the expected threats, LEPL Labour Inspection Service needs to intensify insepction of safety at work.

The main challenge in terms of the protection the right to social security was to study the effectiveness of the Targeted Social Assistance Programme, conduct systemic monitoring and develop appropriate methodologies. As of December 2020, almost 100,000 more people were receiving subsistence assistance Under the Targeted Social Assistance Programme compared to the previous year. Accordingly, the percentage of recipients of assistance increased from 11.5% to 14.1% of the total population. In addition, 83,875 more people want to enroll in the programme, although only 51% of them enjoy the targeted social assistance. Unfortunately, the issue of delayed appointment of the subsistence assistance remains unresolved. In particular, the period from filing an application by a family to the enrollment in the system and final reception of assistance ranges from 3 to 4 months. With regard to the realization of the right to adequate nutrition and access to free canteens, the Public Defender notes that most of the municipalities have not studied the food access needs of individuals and families living in their areas, and the challenges relating to the use of free canteens remain unresolved.

With regard to the right to adequate housing, the State does not have a proper legislative definition of a homeless person or the necessary framework legislation. To date, there is no unified database on homeless persons, while a number of municipalities do not even have local databases, the budget and infrastructure resources are limited and support programmes are not available for those housed in shelters or social housing.

Georgia faced a number of challenges in terms of environmental protection. Particularly acute were: energy policy, legislative and enforcement deficiencies in the environmental impact assessment system, neglect of human rights in urban planning, lack of adequate guarantees for the prevention and elimination of environmental damage, hazardous waste management problems and lack of effective control of the safety of natural gas internal networks. In addition, despite a number of positive measures, the ambient air quality monitoring system is still flawed and does not provide a complete picture of pollution; the pollution caused by the industrial sector is also unregulated.

The Namakhvani HPP cascade project was the subject of special public attention in the reporting year. The main concern of the population, specialists and civil society is the geological and seismic risks in case of the implementation of the project, threats related to landslides and expected microclimate changes, which, in general, causes the expectation of worsened ecological and socio-economic situation in the society. In addition, the economic and energy benefits of the project are in question. At the same time, the public hearing of the project's environmental impact assessment report was problematic, which further deepened the public distrust towards the project.

Insufficient and ineffective legislative regulation of cultural heritage protection, as well as improper conservation-rehabilitation process, became one of the causes of significant damages suffered by the unique frescoes of Gelati, a world heritage site. The study of the issue by the Public Defender revealed that according to the project documentation, there had not been proper substantiation of the advantage or the need of using specific methodology during making the roof. In addition, at the stage of issuing a permit, the materials to be used were not checked.

Apart from Gelati, the condition of other cultural heritage sites is also noteworthy. At the end of 2020, ICOMOS, International Council on Monuments and Sites, published a report listing endangered monuments around the world, which included: Batumi urban heritage, Khada Gorge, Davit-Gareji monastery complex. It is an unconditional obligation of the State to properly protect these monuments and take appropriate effective steps.

The parliamentary report also reviews human rights education in the country. In 2020, as a result of cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports, an online educational course was developed for teachers. Unfortunately, we have not made any progress in developing policy documents (human rights education strategy or action plan) or proactively identifying cases of proselytism/religious indoctrination in schools. In addition, the level of integration of digital citizenship education into the general education system still does not meet the modern standards set by the Council of Europe or the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

In terms of the rights situation of children, the number of cases of violence against children was still high in the reporting period. 1,818 cases of violence against children were identified in 2020. Nevertheless, targeted public services for child victims of violence have not yet been introduced. The prevention of domestic violence against children, protection of and assistance to victims are still problematic, for which it is crucial to timely increase the number of social workers and psychologists. 268 social workers and 12 psychologists have to work with thousands of juveniles with a variety of problems across the country. Preventing child suicide also remains a challenge. In 2020, there were 14 cases of juvenile suicide and 54 cases of attempted suicide. Despite the urgency of the issue, the State has not yet developed a specific strategy or action plan for the elimination of the above problem.

Problems were identified in the distance learning process as well, which jeopardizes the realization of the right to education by some children, especially those living in the regions or poverty. The school dropout rate is still high.

It is also noteworthy that the pandemic has had a drastically negative impact on the socio-economic situation of families. The number of families with children receiving subsistence assistance increased from 71,766 to 87,527 from January to December 2020 and the number of minor beneficiaries involved in the programme increased from 152,353 to 186,131.

Juveniles are not involved in the educational process during seasonal work, temporary labour migration abroad or when working in households. They have to work in heavy conditions, in an unhealthy environment, which is inappropriate for their age and physical development; in most cases, they do not have proper living conditions. Children living and working on the streets have found themselves in a particularly difficult situation during the pandemic.

The issue of protection and monitoring of the rights situation of minors living in religious boarding schools remains a problem. The case of the Ninotsminda boarding school, representatives of which oppose the visits of social workers, needs to be paid attention, as the above endangers the protection of the rights of minors living in the boarding school and increases the risk of already high rates of institutional violence in the boarding schools.

In terms of the rights of persons with disabilities, the adoption of important legislative and regulatory acts and bringing the domestic legislation of the country closer to international standards are welcome. However, a number of recommendations of the Public Defender have not been taken into account and no significant steps have been taken to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities either.

During the pandemic, the restrictions imposed on public transport became a major obstacle for the beneficiaries of rehabilitation programmes. Proper involvement of students with disabilities and special educational needs in the inclusive educational process was also extremely difficult.

Older persons are one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. More than 25% of the population registered with the targeted social assistance programme are older persons. Under these conditions, unfortunately, no new action plan on aging has been developed so far, and more than half of the 2017-2018 action plan has not been implemented. The situation has not changed and older persons still spend 50% of their pension to pay off their pension loans, which further aggravates their socio-economic situation.

The report pays special attention to the right situation of conscripts at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Special Penitentiary Service. The monthly salary of the military servicemen serving without leaving the military unit is GEL 40 in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while the salary of the servicemen working once in three days is GEL 24. The remuneration of the military servicemen of the Special Penitentiary Service, who serve once in three days, is GEL 52, and they have to pay for transportation, hygiene items and food by themselves. The monthly salary of conscripts serving without leaving the military unit in the 17th division of the same service is only 5 GEL, which is not enough even for going home twice a year. The report also reviews the living conditions of the military personnel in detail.

The State resettled 42,370 internally displaced families, while 40,131 families are still awaiting resettlement. It is true that in 2020, unlike previous years, the State resettled the highest number of families (711) living in damaged buildings (96), but despite these efforts, challenges still remain in this area. In addition to IDPs, the protection of the rights of eco-migrants is also noteworthy. It is important for the local governments to focus on preventing eco-migration and not just eliminating the consequences, which has been a trend for years. The special importance of preventive measures became clear both last year, in the case of the village of Jocho in Khelvachauri Municipality in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, and in the context of the current landslide processes in Tbilisi.

According to the Public Defender, unfortunately, the challenges relating to the protection of national minorities and their civic integration were not eliminated in the reporting year either. The rates of political integration of national minorities and their participation in the decision-making process, as well as access to the right to education, are low. The activities carried out to ensure the protection and promotion of the culture of national minorities are insufficient.

The chapter on freedom of religion and belief reviews the key challenges of 2020, including: discriminatory norms in the tax and state property laws towards non-dominant religious associations, alleged hate crimes and the ineffectiveness of investigation, discriminatory statements made on religious grounds and public anti-Semitic statements.

The pandemic has had a particularly severe impact on the rights situation of aliens, including asylum seekers, refugees, persons with humanitarian status, illegal, undocumented and informally employed migrants.

The component of the socio-economic support programme, which provided for monthly financial assistance to those left without income, did not cover foreigners living in Georgia, which put them in a vulnerable position. Excluding migrants from the municipal shelter programmes was also a significant challenge. The rates of granting international protection and residence permits were still low.

In terms of the rights situation of stateless persons, the amount of the fee for establishing the status of a stateless person should have been halved by the end of 2020. However, the State failed to fulfill its commitment voluntarily undertaken at the October 2019 meeting of the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Public Defender positively assesses the consideration of stateless persons among the addressees of socio-economic support programmes approved by the Government in 2020 to mitigate the damage caused by the novel coronavirus. However, it is problematic that stateless persons with temporary residence permits were actually deprived of the opportunity to benefit from the Government’s anti-crisis social package programme that provided monthly monetary assistance to the vulnerable families.

In 2020, the Public Defender's Office received 5,698 applications relating to human rights violations, 3,859 of which were declared admissible. 8,270 calls were received via hotline. The Regional Offices of Eastern and Western Georgia provided telephone and in-person consultations to 5,684 persons; 618 meetings were held with population and representatives of various local organizations.

As a result of reviewing individual applications, the Public Defender drew up and sent 107 recommendations/proposals in 2020. 10 of the recommendations were sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office and 7 - to the Ministry of Justice. The Public Defender drew up 25 special reports, sent 6 constitutional claims and 6 communications to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The Public Defender’s Office drew up and sent 11 amicus curiae breifs. The Public Defender appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and became involved as a third party in two cases.

Representatvies of the Criminal Justice Department made 286 visits to the penitentiary institutions and visited 1,159 detained/impirsoned persons. 46 patients were visited during 15 visits paid to the National Mental Health Center. The Special Preventive Group made 28 visits to 10 penitentiary institutions, 38 visits to 28 temporary detention isolators, 61 visits to police departments, 6 visits to 4 psychiatric institutions, 2 visits to the Migration Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia. 124 remote interviews were conducted in quarantine areas. In terms of the protection of human rights in defence, the Public Defender's Office visited 8 military units subordinated to the Ministry of Defence of Georgia, 16 paramilitary units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia and 4 establishments of the Special Penitentiary Service.

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