Public Defender Presents Report on Situation of Human Rights in 2019 to Parliament of Georgia

On June 25, 2020, Nino Lomjaria, Public Defender of Georgia, presented a report on the situation of human rights in 2019 to the Committee on Human Rights and Civil Integration of the Parliament of Georgia and then to the plenary sitting of the Parliament of Georgia.

The 432-page report provides a thematic overview of key aspects of human rights in the country and the performance of the Public Defender's Office in this direction. In particular, during 2019, the Office issued 335 recommendations to the relevant agencies. In addition, 6737 applications were received by the Office and 9438 calls were registered via hotline, which were followed by relevant legal responses. A total of 579 visits were paid to various institutions. 2399 citizens were provided with legal consultation at the Tbilisi office. The regional offices of Eastern and Western Georgia provided telephone and in-person consultations to 4448 persons. A total of 990 thematic meetings were held.

As a result of the review of individual applications, 75 recommendations and proposals were issued, 14 amicus curiae briefs were filed with national courts; the third party intervention was presented before the European Court in connection with one case; 5 constitutional suits were filed with the Constitutional Court of Georgia. 15 special reports were drawn up and Public Defender’s opinions were sent to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the implementation of judgments delivered by the European Court against Georgia.

The first thematic issue reviewed by the Public Defender at the plenary session was the protection of the right to life. The Public Defender negatively assessed the pardon acts issued by the President of Georgia in 2019. She also noted that investigations into the violation of the right to life did not meet the standard of effective investigation, and that the investigation into Ia Kerzaia's death, the late launch of which prevented obtaining crucial evidence and establishing the truth, has been added to the high-profile cases of Temirlan Machalikashvili and Khorava Street.

In the context of the right to life, the Public Defender reviewed the inappropriate treatment of somatic (physical) health of beneficiaries in psychiatric institutions, which causes deterioration in their health condition and in some cases even deaths. She spoke about shortcomings in the state health care programme, financial and other problems.

With regard to the prevention and investigation of torture and ill-treatment or punishment, the Public Defender noted that the treatment of persons detained for administrative offences continued to worsen. There were also cases of alleged ill-treatment of minors.

An effective investigation of ill-treatment allegedly committed by law enforcement officers remains a systemic problem. No responsible person has been identified in any of the cases investigated on the basis of 107 proposals sent by the Public Defender to the Prosecutor's Office in 2013-2019. The Public Defender hopes that the problem with effective investigation of the cases of ill-treatment will be solved by the active efforts of the State Inspector's Office.

Informal governance in penitentiary establishments creates a serious threat of ill-treatment of prisoners. A certain, privileged group uses criminal sub-culture and repressive methods for informal governance, which in many cases leads to violence against prisoners who do not obey the rules of informal governance.

The Public Defender also stressed the issues of insufficient number of officers of the legal regime and security department; the practice of long-term placement of prisoners in de-escalation rooms and solitary confinement cells; fragmented nature of rehabilitation-resocialization measures, problems with psychiatric care, which is mostly limited to one or two consultations and treatment with drugs; incorrect practice of detection and documentation of alleged ill-treatment by doctors, namely failure to register suspicious injuries on prisoners’ bodies in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol. In addition, one of the major challenges is the parole system.

"The investigation into the abuse of power by law enforcement officers during the dispersal of the rally on June 20-21, 2019 is aimed at assessing the role of certain law enforcement officers and identifying their offences, instead of establishing the liability of high officials or identifying or ruling out alleged offences committed by their inaction during the dispersal of the rally.

The force used to disperse the rally cannot be assessed as proportionate, as 3 types of weapons, 5 types of bullets and shells had been used against demonstrators for four hours and a half. Up to 800 rubber bullets were fired. About 40 representatives of the media were injured. None of them has been granted the status of a victim so far," the Public Defender said.

Freedom of expression and existence of a free and pluralistic media environment remain problematic. Employees of the Adjara TV were dismissed or their job positions were changed in violation of the requirements of the Labour Code of Georgia, international standards and internal regulations of the Adjara TV.

The high number of criminal cases directly or indirectly related to the owners of TV stations that are free from the government influence raises suspicions of attempts to persecute critical media. The cases examined by the Public Defender showed that there existed questions regarding the criminal charges filed against certain persons (Khazaradze, Japaridze) or that the charges did not belong to the criminal sphere at all (Gvaramia).

It should be noted that the State has not yet investigated the case of the disappearance of the Azerbaijani journalist Afghan Mukhtarli.

The protection of freedom of assembly was especially problematic in 2019. Numerous demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, protests or pickets were organized during the year, which made it clear that the State does not take appropriate preventive measures to prevent illegal actions or confrontation between groups of different views, whereas in some cases it uses disproportionate and unjustified force against peaceful protesters.

The challenges faced by activists working independently or for non-governmental organizations, such as discredit, physical or verbal assault, intimidation and other actions, should also be underlined. Defenders of the rights of women and LGBT+ community were particularly at high risk.

In terms of the right to a fair trial, the Public Defender positively assessed the amendments to the Organic Law on Common Courts, which made the issues of disciplinary responsibility of judges more refined and more foreseeable. The Public Defender also positively assessed an amendment to the Civil Code, according to which, a child of any age shall have the right to apply to the court.

Nino Lomjaria once again stressed the issue of selection of judges of the Supreme Court of Georgia on the basis of flawed and non-transparent procedures and noted that according to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the appointment of judges selected on the basis of flawed procedures is a violation of the right to a fair trial.* The Public Defender appealed against the legislation regulating the selection of Supreme Court judicial candidates to the Constitutional Court.

Problems with ambient air quality, safety of natural gas consumption, construction regulations, consideration of human rights during implementation of large infrastructure projects, policy documents related to the construction of hydropower plants and flawed process of environmental impact assessment make the environmental problem one of the main challenges.

Along with other recommendations, the Public Defender addressed the Parliament of Georgia with a proposal to develop uniform regulations in a timely manner to ensure effective mechanisms for effective prevention of environmental damage and elimination of the damage caused, inter alia, by clearly designating the responsible agencies and defining their competencies.

In 2019, the Public Defender's Office visited more than 70 rural dispensaries in 17 different municipalities of Georgia. The monitoring revealed infrastructural problems (disordered buildings, faulty communication and sanitation systems), lack of qualified support staff, lack of access to medicines and inconsistent pursuit of quality-related policy.

The need for a unified state programme to fight against cancer is also crucial. Due to inadequate funding, patients have to pay money from their pockets or with the help of a state/municipal programme until the calculation of the cost by the medical facility. The unified state programme would have substantially improved the treatment of patients with cancer, access to medicines and the emergence of opportunities for cancer prevention.

Speaking of investigation of abuse of power by law enforcment officers during the dispersal of a rally on June 20-21, 2019, Nino Lomjaria stressed that the Public Defender's Office was given the opportunity to oversee the investigation and access the case materials, as an exception, by the good will of the Prosecutor General's Office of Georgia. She once again called on Members of Parliament to consider access to criminal investigation materials relating to the cases of deprivation of life, torture and inhuman treatment.

Unfortunately, the systemic recommendations issued in 2019 relating to the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs have not been implemented. In particular, citizens under police control are still not provided with adequate safeguards against ill-treatment.

Surveillance cameras in police departments, divisions and stations are still not installed in areas where detainees, witnesses and persons voluntarily invited to interviews may be present.

Officers of territorial bodies are not provided with upgraded body cameras; The obligation of patrol inspectors to videotape their relations with citizens has not been regulated at the normative level; No amendments have been made to the Administrative Offences Code of Georgia, according to which, judges, in case of suspicion of ill-treatment of a person under administrative detention, should apply to the relevant investigative body at any stage of the administrative proceedings; The recommendation to ensure audio-video recording of the questioning of detainees remains non-implemented, etc.

With regard to the right to work, the Public Defender spoke about the inadequate mandate and resources of the Labour Conditions Inspection Department, as well as amendments to the Labour Code to set limits on working hours and overtime work. She welcomed the package of amendments to the labour legislation submitted to the Parliament of Georgia on April 27, 2020, which will largely solve the problems related to the mandate of the Labour Inspection Department.

Speaking of the socio-economic situation, the Public Defender noted that despite the positive changes in the methodology, delays in appointing social allowances, as well as the right to proper nutrition, remain problematic. Most municipalities have not assessed the needs of individuals or families living in their area in terms of their access to food, nor have they allocated funds for food from the budget. Free canteens are not available in 10 municipalities.

In addition, there is no government strategy or action plan for homeless people in the country, or an adequate legislative definition of a homeless person or framework legislation necessary for the realization of the right to adequate housing. There is no unified database on homeless people in the country or even local databases in some of the municipalities; budgetary and infrastructural resources are limited; and there are no support programmes for persons living in shelters or social housing.

"Protection of children's rights is, of course, a priority. The adoption of the Code on the Rights of the Child by the Parliament in 2019 is welcome. Nevertheless, there are still many unresolved problems in the country in terms of full and effective realization of children's rights.

The number of child suicide and attempted suicide has increased. 22 cases of child suicide and 69 cases of attempted suicide were reported in 2019, while in 2018 the respective figures were 12 and 48. No child suicide prevention strategy has been developed yet. The child psychosocial protection and support system is still weak, there are no assistance or rehabilitation services for children at risk or child victims of violence.

Child poverty and inadequate living standards have been a problem for years. In 2019, 150,065 children lived in 70,792 families receiving social assistance. The programmes at the municipal level are mostly one-time and cannot timely or completely satisfy the needs of poor families with children, especially in terms of granting adequate housing. As a result, in some cases, children have to live in life-threatening conditions. All this leads to tragic incidents, like the one that took place in the Baghdati municipality, where fire in a house claimed the lives of 6 people living in extreme poverty, including 4 minors.

Protection of children from sexual abuse in small group homes is critical. There have been cases when, despite the fact that both the service provider and the Social Service Agency (LEPL) were aware of some signs of sexual abuse among children, the victim and the abuser continued to live in the same house, which should be considered a complete disregard for the needs of child victims.

The school dropout rate is still high. Children living and working on the street, as well as children married or engaged in labour at an early age, represent particularly vulnerable groups. State care for children in boarding schools subordinated to religious associations remains a problem.

"In 2019, the State still did not have a unified policy - strategy or action plan to combat violence, in particular, bullying."

The State has not yet designated an agency responsible for coordinating the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In addition, it failed to provide rehabilitation programmes for adults with disabilities. Measures taken in the direction of mental health are not enough; The number of community services, as well as their geographical coverage, is not sufficient. The situation has not improved in terms of the realization of the right of persons with disabilities to participate in the political and public life of the country.

Quality inclusive education at all levels of education, as well as employment, remains a challenge.

The monitoring conducted in specialized institutions for older people revealed a number of problems with health care, social activism and individual approach in service delivery.

Beneficiaries did not have access to the services of either a social worker or a psychiatrist. Remuneration of medical staff and caregivers is not proportional to their work.

Based on the cases examined, it can be said that domestic violence against older people is mainly of economic and psychological nature. The State does not have psychosocial services or programmes tailored to older victims of violence, including at the level of local municipalities.

"The human rights situation in the occupied territories is deteriorating from year to year. Representatives of the occupation regimes directly involved in the killings that took place in previous years have not been held responsible yet. In 2019, the long-term closure of the so-called checkpoints led to a humanitarian crisis in the occupied Akhalgori district. Several people died due to lack of access to proper medical care. Movement has been repeatedly restricted on the Enguri Bridge as well, for various reasons.

An important challenge was the illegal detentions/imprisonments of Georgian citizens (including Dr. Vazha Gaprindashvili) for crossing the so-called border, as well as the resumption of "borderization".

Another problem in the occupied territories is abuse, ill-treatment and torture of prisoners in temporary isolators and prisons, as well as the realization of the right to sexual and reproductive health.

Teaching in the Georgian language is completely prohibited in all primary schools of Gali and Akhalgori. Georgian is taught as a foreign language only in some of the schools.

With regard to the rights situation of IDPs, the Public Defender emphasized the fact that IDPs continue to live in inappropriate conditions and a life-threatening environment. The practice of providing houses to IDPs in Tbilisi municipality within the framework of the long-term accommodation of IDPs by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs in Georgia is welcome.

In terms of protection of the right to equality, anti-discrimination legislation was improved in 2019, as a result of which, natural persons were subjected to similar legal regulation as entities of public law and sexual harassment was defined as an administrative offence. It should be noted that the refusal of reasonable accommodation as a form of discrimination on the grounds of disability has not yet become part of Georgian legislation.

The State does not take appropriate measures to eliminate stereotypes towards vulnerable groups. Women, persons with disabilities and members of the LGBT+ community remained the most vulnerable groups in 2019. The equality of representatives of religious and ethnic minorities is also critical.

There are still no state programmes tailored to the physiological and psychological needs of women victims of sexual violence. Maternity leave for women employed in private sector remains a challenge. The equality of persons with disabilities is also problematic. There are gaps in access to various services for both physically disabled and the blind.

In 2019, the Public Defender established victimization at work for the first time, after the employer said that one of the grounds for dismissing an employee was the fact that the latter had applied to the Public Defender. Investigation and prevention of discriminatory offences remains one of the main challenges.

With regard to human rights in the field of defense, it should be noted that the Government of Georgia considered the recommendation issued by the Public Defender for years, equalized the situation of household subsidy beneficiaries and allowed all persons with veteran status to receive household subsidies.

The report of the Public Defender also mentions the need to improve the rights situation of veterans and offers a recommendation to increase the relevant tax benefits. In particular, the Government of Georgia should initiate amendments to the Tax Code in order to increase income tax exemption for veterans to 6,000 GEL (to 9,000 GEL - for veterans with severe and significant disabilities). The above is necessary taking into account the veterans’ socio-economic conditions.

Gender-based killings of women (femicide) are alarming and represent a direct result of gender and social inequality in society. 10 out of 19 killings of women and 18 out of 22 cases of attempted killings of women in 2019 contained signs of domestic crime. The prevention of similar crimes and social work in this direction remain problematic; no specific measures have been taken so far.

Shortcomings are evident in the legislative regulation of crimes of sexual violence at the stages of investigation, criminal prosecution and trial. The detection rate of trafficking cases is also low. Despite the large-scale campaign conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, unfortunately, the practice of early marriage and engagement still remains one of the major challenges.

The projects and programmes aimed at economic empowerment of conflict-affected women should be positively assessed. Nevertheless, the lack of projects, programmes and initiatives aimed at women's empowerment remains a challenge.

At the end of the plenary session, the Public Defender noted that she was addressing the Parliament of Georgia of the 9th convocation for the third and last time in the format of an annual report and therefore, in her concluding speech, she briefly summarized the steps taken by the Parliament to protect human rights, as well as the issues that still remain unresolved.

First of all, she named the laws, adoption of which deserves to be welcomed:

  • Law on Safety at Work
  • Environmental Assessment Code
  • Amendments made to the Law on Tobacco Control in 2017
  • Code on the Rights of the Child
  • Amendments relating to the regulation of sexual harassment
  • Law on State Inspector’s Office
  • Law on International Protection (mainly developed by the Parliament of the previous convocation, but adopted by the Parliament of the 9th convocation)
  • Law on Social Work
  • New Rules of Procedure of the Parliament of Georgia
  • Noise regulation bill.

We disapprove of certain laws and some of them have been appealed to the Constitutional Court, including:

  • Law on Covert Tapping
  • Law on the Selection of Supreme Court Judges
  • Amendments made to the Law of Georgia on Tobacco Control in December 2018, which allowed tobacco smoking in the buildings where slot machines are installed.

"We asked the Parliament to pass laws relating to certain issues, but unfortunately it could not been achieved," - said the Public Defender:

  • Administrative Offences Code has not yet been submitted or adopted and the Code based on the Soviet spirit and adopted by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Georgian SSR in 1984 is applied in the country.
  • Despite the initiation of legislative changes, strict and punitive drug policies have not been replaced by an approach oriented to care and treatment.
  • Electoral changes should be carried out to increase women's political participation.
  • Significant changes should be made to labour legislation to increase the rights of employees. As I have already mentioned, the relevant bill has already been submitted and I hope that the Parliament will adopt it in time, taking into account my remark regarding the mandate of the Public Defender.
  • Legislative changes aimed at ensuring the free expression of will and the conduct of elections in a peaceful manner, which would prohibit the collection of personal information about people arriving at polling stations by political party coordinators and impose liability for the above.
  • Unfortunately, no unified regulations have yet been adopted to ensure mechanisms for effective prevention of damage to the environment or elimination of the damage caused.
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