TORTURE, CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
NEW YORK, 19 March (UN Headquarters) -- Georgia was determined to be a territory free of torture and was also in the midst of radical reform of its criminal justice procedures, George Tskrialashvili, Deputy Minister of Justice of that country, told the Committee on Human Rights today, as it concluded its consideration of Georgia’s second periodic report on its conformity with the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in morning and afternoon sessions.
The expert panel again concurred that much progress had been made in Georgia’s transition towards democracy in the protection and promotion of individual rights. However, they also posited an entrenched culture that impeded such progress. The experts continued to inquire about persistent reports of torture and other reported problems -- including in the administration of justice, freedom of speech, and the protection of women and religious minorities. Discrimination and violence against such non-Orthodox groups as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hari Krishnas and others had been alleged.
Mr. Tskrialashvili acknowledged that the definition of torture in Georgia did not correspond with that of the Convention, but that did not mean torture was not defined for purposes of prosecution. But, to completely eliminate torture, he said, proper training of law enforcement of officials was essential. Other necessary measures included mechanisms to collect medical evidence for the prosecution of torture cases, which were to be instituted in April.
It must be kept in mind, he said, that reform of the criminal procedure code was now in process, including extensive structural changes and involving international experts in its drafting. The reforms would positively affect many of the areas questioned by the Committee, particularly rules on administrative and pre-trial detention. Reform measures would also increase assurance of a competent and independent judiciary.
Rusudan Beridze, Deputy Secretary, Human Rights Issues, National Security Council of Georgia, said it was important to realize that Georgia had struggled through a difficult transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Much crime had been committed and, at times, society had been divided. There had been, therefore, liberal exercise of presidential pardons. She added that some 500 young people who had taken part in the fight for Georgia’s territorial integrity had been pardoned.
She said Georgia had a history of respect for women. The Government had created a State Commission on the Elaboration of Policies on the Rights of Women, of which she was the Chair. Her post had led her to study the problem of violence against women throughout Georgia. She had found it difficult to get hard statistics, since many women were unwilling to discuss the issue openly. While the problem was recognized, Georgia was working hard to identify root causes and ensure safety and security for all women. Still, it would take time to achieve that goal.
On religious violence and intolerance, she said that while general religious harmony existed, presently no law specifically addressed the issue. The Government, aware that such laws were necessary, hoped to focus the attention of the Public Defender’s Office on cases of religious extremism, and work to ensure that the religious freedoms of all Georgian citizens were guaranteed. She added that she had to agree with the panel’s grave concerns over such matters. During her tenure in the Service on Human Rights she had acquired first-hand knowledge of incidents involving Hare Krishnas and Jehovah's Witnesses. Such personal involvement had made it clear to her that legal measures were not sufficient. Societies and communities should instead promote an atmosphere of religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
Summing up the two-day discussion, Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati of India, Chairman of the Committee, praised the progress the country had made since the submission of its initial report. Georgia had enacted many of the Committee’s earlier recommendations. It was important that the resulting laws be implemented, however. In particular, he hoped the new laws concerning the Constitutional Court would increase the amount of cases that body heard. The persistence of torture in Georgia was the most disturbing issue to surface during the Committee’s examination. The delegation had testified to measures meant to counter it, but an independent authority had to preside over the issue. The large number of custodial deaths, judicial problems, domestic violence and other women’s issues also remained of concern.
The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow to take up the fifth periodic report of Sweden.
The Human Rights Committee met this morning to continue to hear questions and answers concerning the second periodic report of Georgia (document CCPR/C/GEO/2000/2).
The three countries presenting reports during this session -- Georgia, Sweden and Hungary -- are among the 148 States parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee, as a monitoring body, periodically examines reports submitted by States parties on their promotion and protection of civil and political rights.
(For additional background, see Press Release HR/CT/614 issued 18 March.)
Response by Delegation
RUSUDAN BERIDZE, Deputy Secretary, Human Rights Issues, National Security Council of Georgia, led her delegation’s response to questions posed by the Committee’s expert panellists yesterday afternoon.
On the issue of pardons, she told the Committee that article 73 of the Constitution gave the President the authority to grant pardons to convicted persons. Indeed, the President had used that power to pardon several thousand persons over the last seven years. It was important to realize that Georgia had struggled through a difficult transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Much crime had been committed and, at times, society had been divided. Some 500 young people who had taken part in the fight for Georgia’s territorial integrity had been pardoned.
On the issue of repatriation, she said there should be no question that Georgia recognized the right of the Meskhetians to return to their homes. A relevant law was currently being elaborated and, after that legislation had been passed, it was thought that it might take some 12 years for full repatriation. Unfortunately, the major hurdle was that many Meskhetians lacked citizenship. Solving that problem was a high priority on the agenda of the Government and the Council of Europe, and all hoped that some 300,000 Meskhetians could return home soon.
On the issue of violence against women, she said Georgia had a history of respect for women. The Government had created a State Commission on the Elaboration of Policies on the Rights of Women, of which she was the Chair. Her post had led her to study the problem of violence against women throughout Georgia. She had found it difficult to get hard statistics since many women were unwilling to discuss the issue openly. While the problem was recognized, Georgia was working hard to identify root causes and ensure safety and security for all women. Still, it would take time to achieve that goal.
She went on to address the issue of disciplinary measures against the police. Yesterday, several of the panellists had disputed the data presented in Georgia’s report on actions taken against law enforcement officers for misconduct. This morning she said that her data had been updated late last month.
Turning to the judicial system, she said that the figures that to some, might appear to denote a high turnover, were merely caused by many long-time judges leaving their positions. That had caused many new court officers to be appointed. She added that internally displaced persons could take part in elections. On detention of lawyers, she agreed that the arrest of two attorneys, mentioned by panellists yesterday, had been unfortunate. But, at the same time, the facts of that case had been alarming. If the panel wanted details, she would inform them later.
She went on to say that it was commendable that Georgia had managed to find the resources to make its efforts at judicial reform successful. It was true, however, that some judges had experienced salary delays and, indeed, salaries were low. But, as the economic situation in the country improved, salaries would rise. Addressing a particular concern of the panellists, she added that she believed that low salaries did not cause corruption; that was a moral question, not one of economics.
On the prevalence of disease in Georgia’s prisons, particularly tuberculosis, she said the Red Cross had offered consistent help in that regard, providing medicines and other treatment, and the situation was improving. The number of cases of tuberculosis had continued to decrease. She added that there were some 500 cases overall, 380 of which were in special medical facilities and some 130 were in prison hospital facilities.
On the ratification of international human rights instruments and Georgia’s efforts to implement them, she agreed that perhaps –- in light of the country’s ongoing and often difficult transition towards democracy -- it had not been ready to take on the responsibilities prescribed by the six core human rights instruments. Still, Georgia had the political will to build its new State on the foundation of internationally recognized fundamental rights and freedoms. She believed serious limitations in implementing the instruments would soon be overcome as the State had a real priority to ensure the rights and freedoms of all its citizens.
Turning to address the panel’s concerns on police violence against prostitutes, she said there were no hard statistics on prostitution in the country. It was believed that there were several hundred prostitutes, existing mainly in large cities. There were no real statistics about violence, but protective measures includes free examination for sexual diseases. Ending prostitution depended on ending the poverty in the country. She hoped that development efforts in conjunction with the World Bank would help reduce poverty and would in turn curb prostitution.
On religious violence and intolerance, she said that while general religious harmony existed, presently no law specifically existed to address such cases. But, the country realized that a law needed to be created in order to deal with the problem. In the process of building a new democratic society, the government was currently considering urgent steps to ensure equality of all religions before the law. It was hoped that perpetrators of religious violence would be identified and prosecuted. The Government would require the Public Defender to pay particular attention to manifestations of religious-based extremism, as well as work to ensure that the religious freedoms of all Georgian citizens were guaranteed.
She said the President had asked the Public Defender to hold a meeting on religious matters on 9 March. That meeting had been attended by the Deputy Ministers of Internal Affairs and State Security, the Chairman of the Georgian Supreme Court, journalists and representatives of non-governmental organizations. Those and other actors had vowed to take measures to prevent crimes, regardless of religious background. The Prosecutor General’s Office had recently been informed of several religious-based crimes, in the form of illegal obstruction of religious rights and beatings. Those cases were being bound over to the courts for adjudication.
GEORGE TSKRIALASHVILI, Deputy Minister of Justice, said that his country was determined to be a territory free of torture. As acknowledged, the definition of torture in Georgia did not correspond with that of the Convention, but that did not mean torture was not defined for purposes of prosecution. Causing bodily harm and grave bodily injury during custody were crimes, and prosecution of such cases had been increasing.
To eliminate torture, he said, proper training of law enforcement officials was essential. Other measures included one that would make it possible to collect medical evidence to prosecute torture cases, to be instituted in April. Structural reform was taking place with the involvement of officials at all levels, as well as non-governmental organizations and international experts.
He said that the so-called imprisonment of debtors related to the control of movement of both those persons and those who had declared bankruptcy, in order to ensure that they fulfilled their obligations. Such measures were highly circumscribed and not often applied, he said.
In regard to public defenders, all persons accused of a crime had a right for counsel provided by the State if they could not afford it, paid for by the State budget at a standard rate. A new statute on public defenders was now under elaboration and would further define State support for legal aid. The financial and quality control problems were difficult problems, however. An association of lawyers would eventually be created to help deal with the problem, but the finance problem would remain.
As far as deaths in custody, he again noted their decline from 92 in 1997 to 31 in 2001. There were programs to counter tuberculosis, but it remained a major cause. In other cases, if criminal cases were not initiated by judicial authorities, a justification had to be presented that could be challenged by interested parties, such as relatives of the deceased. In all cases of deaths of detainees, no officials had been found guilty.
It must be kept in mind, he said, that reform of the criminal procedure code was now in process, including radical structural changes and involving international expert organizations in its drafting. Regarding the 12-hour period of custody following arrests, he said following immediate arrests at the scene of crimes, 12 hours were allowed for examination. Procedures during those 12 hours had not been well-defined, but were a focus in the drafting of the new procedural code.
The Constitution of Georgia, he said, took precedence over international agreements and other legislative acts, and the Constitutional Court could only consider compliance with acts and agreements that were in compliance with the Constitution. The so-called Concordat would have to be in full compliance with the Constitution. Regarding the independence of the judiciary, the Council of Justice was a progressive step in reform towards that end, as were the impartial exams administered to justices. Political pressure was not applied to Council members. Beside the Council, the self-governing body of judges, their Conference, was involved in dismissal of judges.
He said that equal rights had been granted to foreign residents of Georgia. Limitations on the political participation of non-citizens was in absolute conformity with international obligations. Inconsistencies with those norms, such as the assembly and mass-media rights of non-citizens, were recognized and would be examined. Dual-citizenship status existed de facto in Georgia in cases of children born in Georgia to alien parents, but at majority those children had to choose nationalities.
Three weeks ago, the Georgian parliament adopted a package of changes of the procedures of the Constitutional Court, he said, which should respond to questions about the seemingly low number of cases taken up by that Court. Finally, he said there was no procedure for issuing licenses for independent forensic experts, but laws regarding those procedures were in the process of being drafted as part of current reforms.
ALEXANDER NALBANDOV, Deputy Chief, Human Rights Service, National Security Council of Georgia, responded to a series of questions of the Office of the Ombudsman of the Prosecutor. He said the Prosecutor considered the human rights situation in the country. The Ombudsman was allowed the widest power to perform his or her duties. According to the law establishing the Ombudsman, that office was allowed to undertake independent investigations on human rights violations based on allegations received or independent study.
He said the Ombudsman had the right to demand and receive any information –- including court documents –- to help him carry out his duties. He added that there was some overlap in the powers of the Ombudsman and the Prosecutor’s Office under the new Criminal Code. Part of the Ombudsman’s duties included the submission of reports on the situation of human rights in the country to Parliament. Those reports were highly regarded and the recommendations of the Ombudsman were often carried out.
The Ombudsman had a permanent staff of some 40 employees throughout Georgia. The country had high hopes for the Ombudsman’s Rapid Reaction Group. If it was a success, it might be extended and replicated throughout the country. He added that the number of complaints averaged about 5,000 a year, 75 per cent of which dealt with economic and social rights. He said the Public Defender would soon create a Web site that would provide more information about his duties.
On activities on the human rights commissions created in local governing bodies, he said they dealt with complaints at the local levels. Generally, those complaints were sent to the Service. On the application of the Covenant in the legal system and why it had not been invoked domestically, he said, unfortunately; awareness of the Covenant might not be high enough. Addressing that issue was a high priority for Georgia.
He said that the legal age for marriage was 18, but that under special circumstances and with parental consent, marriage could take place at 16. If there was no parental agreement to such early marriages, a court could make that decision. On detention, he said that duration of remand was determined by a judge. He added that the decision to extend a period of detention could be made based on application made by Prosecutor.
Further Questions by Experts
Opening this morning’s round of questions, two experts expressed serious concerns about the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Georgia (articles 18 and 20 of the Covenant). The answers the Committee had heard this morning did not diminish those concerns. One was particularly concerned by persistent reports of mistreatment of religious minorities. He was also concerned about the situation of religious conscientious objectors.
The other expert was concerned that Georgia was in danger of being considered a country mired in religious intolerance. The wider international community was well aware of manifestations of such intolerance present in the media, as well as in the country’s law enforcement agencies. Were members of other religions treated the same as the Georgian Orthodox Church? Were any efforts being made towards the prevention of religious intolerance, particularly through educational programmes? One panellist also asked for clarification of Georgia’s electoral policies.
Another expert agreed that Georgia suffered an entrenched culture of police brutality that had survived after its transition from a long history of totalitarianism. But, he continued, it had been said that human rights were not a luxury to be enjoyed only by rich and secure countries, but that the respect for and promotion of human rights might, in fact, advance the situation in all nations. He wondered how the public education system, particularly the faculties of law and political science, worked to advance the cause of human rights. He was also disturbed by reports that representatives of non-governmental organizations were often impeded from doing their work.
Experts further pointed out the supreme importance of the Constitutional Court in a period of transition, such as the one Georgia was experiencing. Concerned about the lack of freedom of expression for non-citizens, he asked for elaboration on proposed reforms in that area. He wanted to know under what circumstances journalists had to reveal their sources, and wondered about the political balance of the media, the forms of media monitoring provided for in a martial law act, and procedures by which the concluding observations of the Committee would be disseminated.
Experts also requested further elaboration on the role of Ombudsman, promotion of women’s rights, the prevention of religious intolerance and efforts against torture. Confiscation of trade union assets was another concern. They also expressed concern that, in such areas as criminal justice, reforms would be reversed once international attention was focused elsewhere. Questions were also asked about street children, the right to abortion and the rights of homosexuals.
Response by Delegation
Opening the next round of responses, Ms. BERIDZE first addressed the panellists concerns about religious intolerance and attacks on religious minorities in Georgia. Unfortunately, she had to agree with those concerns. During her tenure in the Human Rights Service she had acquired first-hand knowledge of cases involving Hare Krishnas and Jehovah's Witnesses. Such personal involvement had made it clear to her that legal measures were not sufficient. Societies and communities should instead promote an atmosphere of religious tolerance and cultural diversity.
While that was a hard task for any country, particularly those undergoing social and economic transition, Georgia had initiated campaigns to raise awareness on the matter, and was working to pass laws on religious and cultural tolerance. She hoped programmes and policies in that regard would help, and she looked forward to returning to the Committee soon with a progress report.
On human rights education, particularly teaching the principles enshrined in international human rights instruments, she said that in 1997 the President had issued a decree on measures to promote human rights and freedoms in schools, based on the recommendations of the Committee. Human rights law was studied in institutions of higher education. Grade school children studied the Constitution and other human rights documents.
Turning to the Committee’s concluding recommendations, she said those important findings and suggestions would be reviewed by the National Security Council, the main consultative body of the President on such issues. The recommendations would also be transmitted to the wider public through various media outlets. A presidential decree on the outcome of the Committee’s review was also expected.
On the representation of women serving in various levels of the Government, she said the President had made it a priority to enhance the participation of women at all levels. Everyone was aware that much work remained to be done. There were currently 235 members of Parliament, but only 17 women. That figure was too low, she said. In 1998, Georgia held its first local elections, and of the 10,000 people elected, 12 per cent had been women. While that was a bit better than at the legislative level, she was aware that the number needed to increase. She expected the next round of local elections would see more women in office. In the judiciary, 45 per cent of newly elected judges were women. She informed the Committee that internally displaced persons did not lose their right to receive social assistance when they participated in an election.
On street children, she said the number had decreased somewhat recently because new institutions had been established to look after their needs. Non-governmental organizations had also established shelters for those children. Still, the problem remained, and the State had the responsibility to ensure that those children were safe and that they did not fall victim to or take part in criminal activities.
Further on human rights education, Mr. TSKRIALAHVILI said preparatory courses for Georgia’s up-coming bar exam would include training classes on general legal issues, as well as human rights instruments. Georgia was also working to establish training courses for representatives of the correction system.
On freedom of expression and discrimination against non-citizens, he said that laws pertaining to the media and media activity had been elaborated in the 1990s. Those laws had undergone several amendments, but had not changed. So, there were inconsistencies with older legislation on discrimination and the country’s newly amended Constitution. He added that a new law on the press was being elaborated, but the feeling was that they would be elaborated separately from new regulations on electronic media.
Of the character of the media in Georgia, he said there were over 240 newspapers published, most of them privately owned. Television and radio broadcasts were financed by the State, so while the "voice" of the State was present, alternative positions, no matter how radical, were reflected on all issues. Moreover, there were numerous central independent broadcasters. Licensing of broadcast outlets had now been transferred from the relevant Government ministry to an independent body.
Turing next to the legal system, he addressed concerns that the draft law on "city lawyers" (ensuring the presence of a lawyer, 24 hours a day, in all city police stations to provide services for persons needing representation) did not pass the Parliamentary Committee for Legal Affairs. He was not in a position to discuss all the reasons why the law did not go through. He could say, however, that there were questions as to how the initial campaign would be funded and how resources for the newly created positions would be sustained. There were also legitimate logistical concerns about placing a lawyer in every police station.
On the independence of the judiciary, he said while he had no statistics on judicial corruption, the Government was certainly aware of the issue. It was also concerned about the independence of the judges. He added that, by law, judges could be elected for "not less than 10 years", leaving open the possibility of extending terms of office in the judiciary. On administrative detention, he said only a judge could impose administrative sanctions. Such sanctions had traditionally been prescribed under the Code of Administrative Offenses. He added that Georgian legislation provided ways to challenge such sanctions. A new code of administrative violations was under way.
Mr. NALBANDOV then responded to questions about public defenders in Georgia. He said their training had specifically addressed human rights and the conduct of police in that regard. He would send the latest Public Defender’s reports to provide other details requested by the Committee. He emphasized that final decisions on the prolonging of incarceration could only be made by a judge.
As an Armenian by ethnic origin, Mr. Nalbandov said he was in a position to confirm tolerance of ethnic minorities in Georgia. There were some problems, even though the Constitution guaranteed equality before the law. Therefore, measures needed to be taken to make sure of minority participation in all spheres of national life. There was a linguistic problem in that regard, because of the former domination of Russian and the lack of knowledge of Georgian among minorities. Georgia had signed the framework convention on the protection of minorities, but it had yet to be integrated into its legal system.
Additional Questions from Experts
Following up on the responses of the Georgian delegation, the expert panel asked for additional details about opportunities for alternative, non-military national service for conscientious objectors. They also asked about sanctions for hate crimes and the trial of 15 April concerning violence against religious minorities.
Response by Delegation
Ms. BERIDZE replied that there were arguments for making alternative service longer than military service, but the matter was under discussion in the Parliament. Such a service represented a new idea for Georgian society, but would be granted when an individual appealed to a court. If the current laws did not work well, further adjustments would be made.
Mr. TSKRIALASHVILI said that further information on administrative detention would be forthcoming. There were sanctions for hate crimes. The prosecution of the trial set for 15 April was proceeding.
PRAFULLACHANDRA NATWARLAL BHAGWATI of India, Chairman of the Committee, said that Georgia had made considerable progress since the submission of its initial report. It had implemented many presidential decrees since June 1997. It was important that those laws be implemented, however. The abolition of the death penalty was also significant. He hoped the new laws concerning the Constitutional Court that had been enacted would increase the amount of cases that body heard.
The institution of the Office of Ombudsman was also laudatory, he said, but its powers were unclear. The status of the Covenant in Georgia was troubling, as it appeared to take third place in the legal hierarchy. For that reason, the constitutionality of laws could not be measured against provisions of the Covenant.
The persistence of torture in Georgia was the most disturbing factor, he said. The delegation had testified to measures meant to counter it, but an independent authority had to preside over the issue. The large number of custodial debts, the prevalence of tuberculosis in prisons and the poor salaries and unclear provisions for removal of judges were also of concern.
The figure of domestic violence in 50 per cent of families had been disputed by the delegation, but it showed evidence of a large problem in that regard. There was a need for public education in human rights. Lastly, he emphasized that all signatories of the Covenant must carry out its provisions whether or not they agreed with them all. In that regard, it was encouraging that 45 per cent of judges were women, but that equality of participation must be carried over into other areas.
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