Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

The fighting in the western regions of Abkhazia and Megrelia, which had marred Georgia's human rights record in recent years, decreased dramatically in 1994. However, violations of refugee rights, police brutality, abysmal conditions of confinement, and restrictions on peaceful dissent continued to plague this Caucasian country.

After fourteen months of fighting the central government for autonomy, Abkhazian forces took full control of the disputed territory in October 1993, and the warring sides signed the first of a series of U.N.-sponsored peace agreements on December 1. Beginning in June 1994, Russia deployed some 3,000 peacekeepers under the Confederation of Independent States (C.I.S.) banner to de-mine the conflict zone. At the same time, the bloody civil war between supporters and opponents of Head of State Eduard Shevardnadze that had gripped Megrelia and the capital, Tbilisi, since 1991 also tapered off. The parties to the conflict signed a cease-fire agreement in September 1993, former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in December, and anti-Shevardnadze military leader Vakhtang "Loti" Kobalia was sent to jail on murder charges on July 7, 1994.

War criminals from both sides of the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict remained unpunished, however, and Abkhazian diplomatic and armed resistance and the slow pace of peace negotiations prevented almost all of the estimated 250,000 primarily ethnic Georgians driven from Abkhazia from returning home.

Similarly, the central government engaged in a conflict of wills against its detractors. Growing discontent over the country's economic and social deterioration spurred the government to keep a tight grip on society. The government and the Mkhedrioni (Horsemen, a paramilitary group working with the police) harassed, beat and arrested dissidents and nonconformist journalists. They also dispersed several peaceful protest rallies in Tbilisi, including on April 7, 9, 14, and 20, July 9, September 19 and October 11. Torture continued in police lockups and pre-trial investigation centers, most notably in the capital.

Georgia's pre-trial detention centers and prisons were appallingly overcrowded and unsanitary. Facility administrators in Tbilisi blamed empty government coffers for the failure to provide adequate medical care and the inability to feed inmates more than bread. Human Rights Watch considers such conditions severely abusive.

In 1994 the government imprisoned or failed to release dozens of members of the loosely organized opposition in an apparent attempt to silence them. Charges ranged from political crimes such as treason and terrorism to criminal violations, and many suspects faced the death penalty. On May 19, for example, Avtandil Rtskhiladze, a leading supporter of President Gamsakhurdia, went to jail on murder charges; as of this writing, however, the Procuracy (prosecutor's office) was not known to have submitted any evidence against him. In response to criticism of such arrests, Mr. Shevardnadze created a commission in July to investigate whether Georgia kept political prisoners. His appointment of officials exclusively from his own government to serve on the commission raised doubts about the impartiality of the inquiry.

Nineteen opposition members arrested in 1992 for murder and terrorism, among other crimes, came to trial in October 1993, and, despite serious due process violations, they remained on trial throughout 1994. They testified that investigators tortured them into confessing. Sixteen of the defendants faced capital punishment. With only one known exception, the court failed to investigate these serious allegations. Indeed, throughout the trial Judge Mirza Dolidze barred access to counsel, prohibited medical care, and expelled defendants and defense lawyers from the courtroom arbitrarily, ultimately trying five individuals facing the death penalty in absentia. Special forces (OMON) reportedly beat one defendant, Viktor Domukhovskii, in his cell on August 13. Soon after Mr. Domukhovskii protested the beating, the judge expelled him and his legal representative from the trial. The Supreme Court and the Collegium of Lawyers (roughly equivalent to a bar association) refused to investigate these gross violations of due process. On the contrary, in June the Collegium disbarred an outspoken defense lawyer in the case, Tengiz Nijeradze.

In March the parliament lifted a two-year moratorium on the death sentence. The Committee for Human Rights and Inter-ethnic Affairs confirmed that executions had taken place, but was unable to confirm how many. It reported in August, however, that the government had approved at least eight acts of clemency in 1994.

Residents enjoyed relatively unrestricted free expression. However, the government's attacks on independent journalists, or failure to condemn such attacks, chilled some critical speech. On March 23, six armed men reportedly beat Zaza Chenguelia, director of the independent TV station Obervisa, at his office so badly that he required hospitalization. Three days later, the station was bombed. On April 9, another bomb exploded at the editorial offices of the independent newspaper Svobodnaia Gruziia. On June 14, militia arrested and beat David Khvizhinadze, a Reuters correspondent, as he filmed an opposition rally in Tbilisi, and confiscated his camera.

In 1993, the Procuracy charged Elizbar Javelidze, editor of the independent newspaper Sakartvelos Samreklo, with slandering Mr. Shevardnadze for publishing a translation of a critical article from the British journal Soviet Analyst. According to Mr. Javelidze's wife, the militia repeatedly searched his home and harassed his family in 1994, forcing him into hiding. One activist with the opposition Helsinki Union claimed that as of June, twenty-five Georgian journalists had lost their jobs because of government pressure.

In at least two broadcasts, the government media grossly distorted coverage of Human Rights Watch's concerns in Georgia; at least one journalists' organization declined to cover the issues at all, citing fear of government reprisals.

In a rare positive development, the government on April 7 agreed to re-register the once illegal newspaper Tavisupali Sakartvelo.

The Right to Monitor

Government harassment and the politicization of human rights work reduced the number of active independent monitors in Georgia to a handful.

Over the summer, law enforcement officials twice detained Tbilisi-based activist Giorgi Khoshtaria; on September 19 Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Chaladze reportedly personally beat him during interrogation. Mr. Khoshtaria reported that the interrogations focused on his defense of political prisoners. The human rights branch of the Helsinki Union reported that the militia arrested members arbitrarily and tapped their telephones. It is unclear whether the harassment was intended to curtail their political or human rights activities.

The governmental Committee on Human Rights met with Human Rights Watch representatives in June and August, held a joint press conference with the organization in August, facilitated some access to prisons, helped collect copies of laws, and promised to correct some minor due process violations in Criminal Case No. 7493810. However, the committee also prevaricated about medical attention to prisoners.

In June government and prison authorities barred a Human Rights Watch representative from speaking with incarcerated defendants. Prison authorities punitively moved one inmate, Zaza Tsiklauri, who was suffering from tuberculosis and the effects of torture, from the hospital where he was interviewed by our representative to an overcrowded detention cell where he received no medical care and later contracted hepatitis from a cellmate. The presiding judge and prison officials refused him medical treatment until relatives and human rights groups joined in protest of his mistreatment; then they returned him to the hospital in September.

United Nations Policy

The U.N. forged difficult peace agreements for Abkhazia, and the officer of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted tens of thousands of displaced persons. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright traveled personally to Tbilisi on September 1 to speed the peace process.

At the same time, the U.N. helped negotiate restrictions on the right to return home. Article 3(c) of the April 4 quadripartite (Georgia, Abkhaz, Russia and U.N.) agreement denied returnees immunity when there were "serious signs" that they had committed a "military offense...a serious criminal offense or earlier participated in military actions and currently belong to armed formations that are preparing for military actions in Abkhazia." No one should be immune to investigation of alleged human rights violations. However, the very real fear of biased prosecution discouraged displaced persons from returning to Abkhazia. The restrictions stipulated in the April agreement are also objectionable since they target a particular group, the overwhelmingly Georgian population that fled Abkhazia.

The U.N. declined to send peacekeepers to Abkhazia pending a political settlement of the conflict. The U.N. had no legal obligation to do so, and its resistance was understandable. However, its lack of participation in the process yielded a dangerous situation for civilians. Partisan bodies such as the Russian army, Georgian Procuracy, and Abkhazian militia and Procuracy were responsible for law enforcement in the wake of the conflict. Since most of the individuals designated to perform law enforcement and prosecutorial duties were either victims of or parties to the conflict, the risk that suspects would not receive a fair trial increased. The U.N. was also slow to muster the military observers it authorized (only 104 out of 136 authorized observers had been deployed as of this writing), and thereby weakened the necessary supervision of regional law enforcement efforts.

The Georgian government and Abkhazian authorities are responsible for investigating suspected violations of the laws of war and trying them fairly. Should they fail to fulfil that obligation, the U.N., as the representative of the international community, should stand ready to prosecute and punish violations of the laws of war in full conformity with international standards.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration was responsive to Georgia's humanitarian crisis, sending some $106 million for assistance. It also promoted a broad spectrum of educational programs through the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

However, the U.S. government limited its criticism of Georgia's dismal human rights record almost exclusively to its strong annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 and the work of its embassy, which raised concerns locally and interceded directly on behalf of victims. Although President Clinton met with Mr. Shevardnadze in March 1994, he is not known to have raised criticism of Georgia's appalling human rights record. Failure to publicly criticize that record squandered the opportunity to condition the close relations the U.S. has cultivated with Georgia and the relatively extensive aid package it has provided on improvement in its human rights record.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki pursued two goals in Georgia in 1994: to expose violations in the media and in personal meetings with government officials, and thereby to compel government authorities to take action.

Our representatives traveled to Tbilisi in June and August, visited prisons, hospitals and pre-trial detention centers, and raised concerns with government officials. In August, we issued a report about torture in detention and other serious violations, and held press conferences on violations in Moscow and Tbilisi. We also urged Russia and the European Union to condemn violations in Georgia. Our protests resulted in heightened government and media attention to these abuses, decreased harassment of some activists, and medical treatment for inmates.

Throughout the year we demanded that the government and prison officials provide medical care to inmates and stop due process violations. We also urged the Procuracy to review the February 7 murder conviction of Anzor Sharmaidze, who was charged with the 1993 death of C.I.A. agent Fred Woodruff, in light of evidence that Mr. Sharmaidze was tortured into confessing.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.