South Caucasus protest-related cases communicated by the European Court

8 October 2015

The use of force in the dispersal of the June 2015 Electric Yerevan protests concerning the cost of energy in Armenia proved once again that citizens’ rights to demonstrate peacefully is an ongoing issue in the region. Three EHRAC cases, linked to mass demonstrations (lodged at the European Court of Human Rights in collaboration with Armenian and Georgian NGO partners) have recently been communicated to the respective governments for their formal responses.[1]

The cases concern violations during earlier protests dating back to 2008-2013 and serve as a timely reminder of this systemic issue. They relate to: the use of lethal force against protesters during a demonstration in the wake of the 2008 presidential election in Armenia; the ill-treatment of an opposition politician’s driver during detention, held responsible for the death of a police officer during mass protests in Georgia in 2011; and a violent assault against LGBT demonstrators in Tbilisi on the International Day Against Homophobia 2013.

Right to life: Farmanyan and others v Armenia

Presidential elections took place in Armenia on 20 February 2008, the fairness of which was contested by the main opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, immediately after voting closed.[2] Consequently, Ter-Petrosyan organised mass demonstrations in Freedom Square, Yerevan. While the authorities allowed demonstrators to remain peacefully for several days, early in the morning on 1 March police officers descended on the Square and began to beat the demonstrators with rubber truncheons and destroy their tents. After several violent attacks on the protesters, the incumbent president, Robert Kocharyan, declared a state of emergency.

Nine applications were lodged at the European Court, each relating to the death of one of the demonstrators, on behalf of their relatives. The applicants argue that the Armenian government violated the protesters’ and opposition activists’ right to life under the substantive and procedural limbs of Article 2 ECHR, and that they had no effective remedy (Art. 13).  These cases were grouped together by the Court in Farmanyan and others v. Armenia, and were communicated to the Armenian government on 1 September 2015. EHRAC’s legal team is representing the applicants with Mr. Artak Zeynalyan, the victims’ representative in domestic proceedings.

These cases are of crucial importance, not only for the applicants, who were unable to find justice in Armenia, but also for Armenian society; use of lethal force by the government and its agents against the peaceful protesters on 1st March 2008 remains a key issue in the domestic and international political and human rights agenda.

Prohibition of torture and ill-treatment: Zurashvili v Georgia

On 25 May 2011, the Democratic Movement-United Georgia opposition coalition, led by Nino Burjanadze, organised a protest rally in front of the Parliament building in central Tbilisi. Although the rally organisers had obtained a permit to hold the rally, it was due to expire at midnight; the opposition leaders had, however, expressed their intention to stay on longer. Just fifteen minutes after midnight, anti-riot police began to disperse the crowd using water cannons and tear gas indiscriminately, as well as beating and detaining the demonstrators. At this point, Ms. Burjanadze and other opposition leaders decided to leave, and drove away in seven vehicles through the crowd of protesters and anti-riot police. The first car drove at high speed to break through the police cordon, and was followed by the remaining cars; after the cars had passed, a lifeless body was seen lying on the carriageway. It later emerged that a police officer and a protester had died. All seven drivers were arrested on homicide charges; however Ms. Burjanadze’s driver, Shakria Zurashvili (the applicant in the case) had his charged requalified as intentional infliction of serious injury to health and resisting a police officer.

In his application to the European Court, Mr. Zurashvili alleged violations of the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment (Art. 3 ECHR), the right to liberty and security (Art. 5), the right to a fair trial (Art. 6), the right to freedom of assembly and association (Art. 11) and the right not to be tried or punished twice (Art. 4 Protocol 7). The Court communicated Mr Zurashvili’s claims (pursuant to Art. 3) that he was ill-treated by officers of the Ministry of the Interior in their custody and that no effective investigation was conducted into these events.

Discrimination: Women’s Initiatives Support Group and others v Georgia

This is very distressing case about large-scale mob violence and intimidation which will help to elucidate further what governments must do to protect the fundamental rights of minority groups.

Professor Philip Leach, EHRAC Director

To mark the International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May 2013, the Women’s Initiatives Support Group (WISG) – a Tbilisi-based NGO promoting the rights of the LGBT community in Georgia – had planned a silent twenty-minute flash mob in one of the capital’s main thoroughfares. Given that radical homophobic groups had acted violently towards them and other LGBT groups during a similar event in 2012, WISG had requested greater support and protection from the Interior Ministry during the flash mob, especially in light of serious threats received the week before the event was due to take place. On 13 May, WISG was informed that a counter-demonstration with 20,000 participants would also be taking place, leading the Interior Ministry to propose moving WISG’s demonstration to another central location a few hundred metres away to prevent the two groups from clashing; WISG agreed with this proposal. Nevertheless, on the day, demonstrators taking part in the WISG flash mob were separated from the counter-demonstrators by only a thin cordon of police patrol officers, and there were no anti-riot police present. When trying to reach the demonstration, the applicants were surrounded by counter-demonstrators, who shouted homophobic insults and violent threats at them. A staff member of the UN Tbilisi office managed to sneak them into a nearby house, where they waited for a minibus to take them away from the scene. Once the applicants got into the minibus, the angry crowd of counter-demonstrators broke almost all the windows with iron batons in an attempt to get to the people inside, however the driver finally managed to get through and take the applicants to safety.

EHRAC has been working with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) on these applications, which were lodged at the European Court on 15 November 2013. The fifteen individual applicants argue that the events of the day amount to a violation of the prohibition of ill-treatment under Article 3 ECHR, in conjunction with the prohibition of discrimination (Art. 14) on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Additionally, they claim, along with the NGO itself, a violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association (Arts. 10 and 11 respectively); these violations are also raised in conjunction with the prohibition of discrimination, as they allege that they were unable to proceed with their peaceful flash mob because of the homophobic assault against them. The European Court communicated the case to the Georgian government for its observations on 24 August 2015.

[1] For more about the different stages of taking a case to the European Court, click here.

[2] On 24 February, it was announced that Serzh Sargsyan (then Prime Minister) had won the election with 52% of the vote. Levon Ter-Petrosyan received 21% of the vote.