December 10 Marks International Human Rights Day - 2022

For 75 years, after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world has been celebrating the International Human Rights Day on December 10 every year. 75 years have passed after the adoption of this most important international act, but there is still much to be done to ensure that dignity, freedom and justice are equally provided and accessible to all of us. Traditionally, the Public Defender also celebrates this most important day. By releasing a statement, the Public Defender reminds the public of the major challenges that, in our opinion, hinder the protection of human rights in the country.

The most important event in 2022 was the assessment document drawn up by the European Commission for granting Georgia the status of a candidate country for EU membership on June 17, which laid down 12-point conditions for getting the candidate status for EU membership. The conditions include reform of the justice system. In order to fulfill these requirements, the bill drafted by the working group set up for the judicial reform in the Parliament contains certain positive changes relating to the procedure for electing judge and non-judge members of the High Council of Justice, appointment of judges of first and second instance and ensuring the publicity of judicial acts, however, systemic issues in the court, such as distribution of concentrated power in the Council of Justice, changing the decision-making procedure, election of court chairmen by the judges of the same court and other issues that the Public Defender has referred to in many forms and reports, remain unresolved.

At the beginning of 2022, despite numerous critical evaluations of local and international organizations, as a result of the changes made by the Parliament of Georgia in an accelerated manner in 4 days, the reform carried out as a result of the creation of two new agencies instead of the State Inspector’s Service was evaluated by the Public Defender as interference with the activities of an independent body. Unfortunately, these changes did not lead to the creation of a better system of personal data protection or new entities with sufficient guarantees to conduct an effective investigation. A clear example of this was the release of files last year, which contained an unprecedented amount of personal data obtained through allegedly illegal wiretapping and surveillance, which clearly highlighted the need for a strong institution responsible for protecting this right, which unfortunately was not achieved by the changes made.

Unfortunately, the establishment of a politically neutral prosecution system remains a challenge. The Public Defender constantly draws attention to the need to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office. However, the investigations conducted by the Prosecutor's Office in 2022, as in previous years, contained significant flaws that do not meet the criteria of effective investigation. There have been many clear cases of this, however, as an example, we will remind the public of the investigation of the violent events that occurred on July 5, 2021, which does not meet the standards of effective investigation in terms of thoroughness or timeliness. For example, in some cases, examinations were conducted late and physical evidence was also obtained late, which became the main reason for the acquittal of a number of defendants. In addition, the Prosecutor's Office did not consider the Public Defender's proposal and did not charge specific individuals with organizing or directing gang violence despite the fact that the publicly available evidence reaches the standard of probable cause against at least 2 individuals.

It is important that quick, objective and timely response to alleged rights violations by the Monitoring Department of the Penitentiary Service and the General Inspection of the Ministry of Internal Affairs remains a challenge.

The cases of Nika Gvaramia and Mikheil Saakashvili are also significant. According to the Public Defender's assessment, the ruling of the Court of Appeal against Nika Gvaramia is not substantiated, represents a case of imposing criminal liability for corporate actions, and the political motive in the case outweighs the interest of justice. As for Mikheil Saakashvili's case, the group of doctors set up in 2022 by the order of the Public Defender of Georgia continued to assess the adequacy and timeliness of the medical services provided to Mikheil Saakashvili. According to the report published by the group on December 6, 2022, the patient's condition, after April 2022, sharply deteriorated and can be assessed as severe. On December 7, 2022, the Public Defender of Georgia appealed to the Tbilisi City Court and indicated that Mikheil Saakashvili's state of health met the requirements of the criminal law for the postponement of penalty.

As in previous years, it is problematic to protect the rights of imprisoned and detained persons being under the effective control of the State. The obligation of videotaping in police cars and with body cameras and keeping the recordings for a reasonable period of time are still not regulated by a normative act.

The informal hierarchy in penitentiary institutions, which aims to silence prisoners, prohibit them from talking about problems and maintain a seeming order in the institutions remains a serious challenge. The impact of this problem was highlighted in a report published by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) on June 16, 2022 after visiting Georgia. Challenges related to the right to receive adequate medical services within the penitentiary system are also significant. Throughout 2022, unfortunately, the practice of placement of prisoners in de-escalation rooms and solitary confinement cells for a long time for the purpose of punishment was maintained, which, according to the Public Defender, amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment.

It is welcome that in 2022 the President of Georgia considered the proposal of the Public Defender and made changes to the 26 November 2019 Decree on Approval of Pardon Rules, on the basis of which the term of using the pardon power for persons deprived of liberty for life was reduced from 20 years to 15 years. The positive trends of implementing a number of recommendations of the Public Defender and the process of working on the new imprisonment code by the Ministry of Justice of Georgia are also welcome.

However, it is unfortunate that in 2022, as in previous years, the problems related to the parole mechanism remained unresolved. Local councils working on parole issues often make different decisions in cases with identical circumstances, and the motivational part of the decisions is formal in nature and does not contain proper reasoning.

As for the situation in psychiatric institutions, the Public Defender welcomed the amendment made to the Law on Mental Health in 2021, which introduced the requirement to review the legal status of patients undergoing voluntary treatment when using restraint methods towards them. However, unfortunately, the changes are completely ignored in practice. Lengthy hospitalization of patients placed in psychiatric institutions is still a challenge. Patients who do not require active treatment cannot leave the institution due to the scarcity of community services and the fact that they have nowhere to go. At the normative level, the obligation to receive separate informed consents for hospitalization and treatment is still not defined. The legal mechanism for documenting alleged violence committed against patients in psychiatric institutions and reporting the above to the investigative agency is still not implemented.

It is also significant that there are still problems in the field of defence, including the systemic problem of informal and collective punishment of military personnel.

During the reporting period, unfortunately, there were cases of interference with freedom of assembly and expression in the country, which created an intimidating environment and contained elements of crime. The Public Defender of Georgia emphasizes that the organization of a pre-announced peaceful rally and distribution of information cards for this purpose is fully protected by freedom of assembly and expression, and the Government is obliged to ensure the above.

In order to ensure media freedom and an appropriate environment for the activities of journalists in the country, it is important to have a proper legal regulation of freedom of information, as well as to ensure enforcement of these norms. Unfortunately, both are problematic, as fundamental changes have not yet been made to the flawed legislation of freedom of information, and unfortunately, non-compliance with the applicable norms by public institutions is also a problem. In this regard, the trend of not allowing and/or not inviting representatives of critical media to briefings or municipal events organized by state agencies has been repeatedly observed in the recent period. In 2022, a clear example of this was the case of preventing BMG editor-in-chief Telara Gelantia from attending a governmental Government. Obviously, similar examples threaten media pluralism in the country and have a negative impact on the country's democratic processes.

The global crisis caused by the Covid pandemic has made the need for effective protection of socio-economic rights especially obvious. Against this background, protection of the right to health is still problematic in many directions in Georgia. In particular, there are still challenges in the primary health care system, such as old infrastructure, weak links between rural doctors and other specialists, as well as acomplicated and fragmented system of financing primary health care facilities. Hard working conditions and low wages make the situation in the hospital sector of Georgia even worse. The Government's initiative to establish a minimum wage for doctors and nurses within the framework of the universal health care programme is welcome, but certainly not enough. Unfortunately, the current social security system is not aimed at overcoming poverty, but mainly at satisfying minimum needs instantly.

The monitoring conducted by the Public Defender’s Office in 2022 proves that there are many challenges in terms of the realization of right to food in the municipalities. In many cases, soup kitchens are located in administrative centers, and in some cases, beneficiaries living in remote villages have to travel long distances - 8, 10, 15, 20 and sometimes 30 kilometers to receive this service. Part of the municipalities that have a soup kitchen service cannot provide food to all the beneficiaries living in their municipality due to limited budget funding.

Older persons remain one of the most vulnerable groups in Georgia, they have to deal with many difficulties. Since 2018, there has been no unified state policy document on population aging. In 2022, the monitoring carried out by the Office in 4 nursing homes made it clear once again that there is no relevant legal framework or regulation, which would have determined uniform standards for long-term care facilities financed by the central and local governments or operating without such financing, and an effective mechanism for monitoring these standards. There are no programmes promoting the economic activity of older persons, and what is even more alarming, violence against these persons remains the most invisible.

Unfortunately, as in previous years, homeless persons are still one of the most vulnerable and socially excluded groups. It is unfortunate that there is still no proper legal definition of a homeless person and the necessary framework legislation for the realization of the right to adequate housing. Extremely difficult living conditions were identified as a result of monitoring 11 social housing facilities in 7 municipalities in 2022, which is caused by the lack of uniform standards for arranging social housing.

There has been no significant improvement in terms of the protection of the principle of equality in 2022. The lack of a unified state vision and policy, which would contribute to achieving equality in the country, remains a challenge. For example, LGBT+ people are not mentioned in the Human Rights Strategy 2022-2030 at all. We rarely hear statements in support of equality by high-ranking officials, politicians or public figures. Unfortunately, on the contrary, there have been many examples of discriminatory statements and calls. As for the positive trends, it is important that, in accordance with the recommendation of the Public Defender, more and more state agencies and private organizations are introducing internal organizational mechanisms for the prevention of sexual harassment. It should also be noted that after the Public Defender evaluated the municipal health care and social programmees in relation to the right to equality, the municipalities considered our recommendations and the situation has improved.

In terms of gender equality, as in previous years, it is still problematic to implement practical measures to promote equal participation of men and women in political life, and it remains a problem to bring the definition of sexual violence in line with international standards at the legislative level, in particular, to change the existing definition of rape and to determine the component of free and voluntary consent in it. The rates of child marriage and engagement are alarming. According to the statistics produced by the Service Development Agency, 479 girls were registered as underage parents in 2020, 476 in 2021 and 189 in the 6 months of 2022.

Systemic challenges such as ineffective response to the cases of violence against women and domestic violence, inadequate assessment of the risk of recurrence of violence and ineffectiveness of preventive measures, lack and malfunction of victim support services remain unsolved. According to the data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, 6,520 restraining orders were issued relating to domestic violence and investigations were launched in 3,064 cases in the 9 months of 2022. The scale of extreme forms of violence, murders and attempted murders of women is alarming, which is not characterized by a decreasing trend from year to year. According to the official statistical data available to the Public Defender, 18 cases of killings of women were reported in Georgia in the 10 months of 2022, of which the elements of domestic crime were identified in 11 cases. The rate of attempted murders is much higher; 26 out of 32 such cases contained elements of domestic crime. These statistics indicate that there is a need to improve prevention of and response to the cases of violence against women and domestic violence in practice, to raise public awareness, to strengthen measures to protect and assist victims, and to tighten the criminal justice policy.

Challenges relating to the protection and civil integration of national minorities have not been eliminated. The political integration of national minorities and their participation in the decision-making process, problems relating to their access to the right to education, effectiveness of consultation mechanisms, scarcity of measures taken specifically to promote the culture of national minorities, as well as the availability of the media, are still problematic.

In the direction of freedom of religion, unfortunately, first of all, it should be noted that the problematic practice of financing religious associations and shortcomings related to the activity and mandate of the State Agency for Religious Issues have not been changed. Unfortunately, the issue of returning religious buildings confiscated during the Soviet period to their historical owners remains a challenge. The religious needs of prisoners with various religious beliefs are also worth noting.

Unfortunately, as of November 15, 2022, 321,821 children under the age of eighteen are registered in the Unified Database on Socially Vulnerable Families, and the number of families with at least one child under the age of eighteen in the same database is 158,235. It is welcome that from July 1, 2023, social assistance for socially vulnerable children will increase from GEL 150 to GEL 200. The rights situation of children left out of education and the detailed examination of the reasons for dropout, as well as working with families, remain problematic.

It is welcome that the process of deinstitutionalization of children's large residential institutions has started in the country, which had been a repeated recommendation of the Public Defender for years. In 2022, the reorganization of the Assisted Living Facility of St. Matthias the Apostle Foundation of the village of Peria into a state educational institution was launched, in particular, measures are being taken to return children to their biological families, and in case of impossibility of the above, to transfer them to a family-like environment. In this regard, the launch of deinstitutionalization of the Ninotsminda boarding school is also significant, which had been actively advocated by the Public Defender. Despite these positive changes, the investigation launched in 2016 into the systematic violations of children's rights and the years of humiliating, inhuman and torture-like treatment of children in the Ninotsminda facility contains significant and substantial flaws.

Unfortunately, it is still problematic to prevent domestic violence against children, to protect and assist victims, for which, together with other measures, the timely increase in the number of social workers and psychologists is crucial. Along with the problematic issues, positive and important developments should also be noted. In particular, a psychosocial rehabilitation center for child victims of violence was opened in Tbilisi in 2022, the need for which had been pointed out by the Public Defender for years.

Like previous years, it remains a challenge to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, there has not yet been a transition to the social model of determining the disability status, which, in addition to medical factors, would focus on the psychological and social factors of a person and would be tailored to his/her individual needs.

There are still no valid statistics on persons with disabilities by the type of disability, which makes it impossible to identify the needs of these people and develop targeted programmes tailored to their needs. Unfortunately, until now, no strategy has been developed for the deinstitutionalization of the mental health field, the number of community services and the geographical coverage area have not been substantially increased. A national accessibility plan has not been developed, which is provided for by the Law of Georgia on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Unfortunately, the practice of illegal detention and ill-treatment of citizens in the occupied territories is still the most important challenge. In addition, the process of illegal borderization continues. Despite the fact that from August 2022, the so-called checkpoint is open for 10 days every month, there remain an acute situation and humanitarian crisis in the area due to the fact that the “checkpoint” had been completely closed from September 4, 2019. Faulty medical services and infrastructure remain major challenges in the occupied territories. Access to education in the mother tongue is also problematic, which is why the number of students in both regions is decreasing every year.

The Public Defender’s Office once again congratulates everyone on the Human Rights Day and hopes that the response of the State to the problems identified in terms of protection of human rights and freedoms in the country will ensure the effective and real protection of human rights in our country and the worthy celebration of this day.

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