Police and prison abuses in Georgia: European Court asked to re-open cases due to failure to investigate

23 January 2018

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Two years have passed since the Georgian Government admitted to breaching the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in four of our cases with the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA, Tbilisi). Despite committing to investigating the events that led to these violations, in practice the Government has failed to carry out effective investigations. In January 2018, EHRAC and GYLA requested that the European Court of Human Rights re-examine these cases, given the Government’s ongoing failure to investigate.

What are the cases about?

Three of the cases concern allegations of excessive use of force by the police during protests in 2009 against the then President Mikheil Saakashvili, which the Georgian Government acknowledged violated the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 ECHR). For some of the individual applicants, the Government also acknowledged breaches of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly (Article 11) and to fair trial (Article 6 ECHR). In the fourth case, a man who, having refused to become an informant, was allegedly bullied by prison staff and prisoners, and found hanged in his solitary confinement cell. The Georgian Government admitted that it had violated his right to life (Article 2 ECHR).

The four cases were struck out by the Court in 2015 through two mechanisms – friendly settlements and unilateral declarations. The terms proposed by the Government (including admitting breaches of the ECHR) meant that the cases were considered resolved. In all of these cases, the Government undertook to conduct an effective investigation, as well as to provide financial compensation to the victims. However, more than two years on, the applicants in these cases argue that effective investigations have still not been carried out, and so the cases should be reactivated by the European Court (under Article 37 ECHR).

What next?

By requesting that the European Court re-examine these cases, we aim to hold the Georgian Government to account beyond the supposed resolution of the case. It is not enough for the Government to acknowledge violations: it must adhere to its obligations and carry out effective and timely investigations as well. Should the Court accept our request, it will send a strong message to the Georgian Government that acknowledging human rights violations through settlements or unilateral declarations does not absolve them from providing victims with redress, and taking measures to prevent future violations from taking place.

The wider context

In recent years, the lack of a transparent and effective investigation into allegations of crimes committed by Georgian law enforcement agencies has repeatedly been identified as one of the most serious, systemic problems within the Georgian legal system. This problem has been scrutinised by, amongst others, the Public Defender of Georgia, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Ill-treatment in prison: the case of Shakria Zurashvili

In a further development, another prison abuse case from Georgia has recently been resolved following the Government’s admission of a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

In May 2011, the Georgian opposition coalition led by Nino Burjanadze organised a protest rally in front of the Parliament building in central Tbilisi. Anti-riot police began to disperse the crowd using water cannons and tear gas indiscriminately, as well as beating and detaining the demonstrators. Ms. Burjanadze and other opposition leaders decided to leave, and were driven 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, had his charge requalified as intentional infliction of serious injury to health and resisting a police officer. Represented by EHRAC and GYLA, Mr Zurashvili argued before the European Court that he was ill-treated while in police custody by officers of the Ministry of the Interior, and that no effective investigation was conducted into these events, in violation of Article 3 ECHR.

In September 2017, the European Court accepted a unilateral declaration by the Georgian Government, explicitly acknowledging that Mr Zurashvili’s Article 3 rights had been breached on both counts. As part of the declaration, the authorities undertook to conduct an effective investigation into Mr Zurashvili’s allegations, and to pay him €5000 in compensation. He was not satisfied with the terms of the declaration, on the grounds that it did not specify a time limit for the investigation, nor was there a guarantee that he would be granted victim status and therefore be involved in the investigation. The Court nevertheless accepted the terms of the declaration. This case could be a valuable opportunity for the Government to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to its human rights obligations by undertaking a timely and effective investigation, breaking the trend of the cases outlined above.

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