Georgia Accused of Holding Political Prisoners

Activists cite cases where they claim members of opposition convicted in totally - or partially - fabricated trials.

Georgia Accused of Holding Political Prisoners

Activists cite cases where they claim members of opposition convicted in totally - or partially - fabricated trials.

Saturday, 24 October, 2009
Georgian human rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of opposition figures being prosecuted in the country, despite government denials that they are political prisoners.

They say the number of political prisoners rose sharply following months of protests earlier this year against President Mikhail Saakashvili, who rejected protesters’ demands that he resign.

The groups won support from the International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH, which in a report in August concluded that the Georgian authorities are holding political prisoners and demanded their release.

Georgian officials strongly deny the existence of political prisoners, and international organisations have not accused the country of holding such people – unlike neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan - but FIDH investigators came to their conclusions after meeting the families of inmates, their lawyers, and studying court documents.

“These cases mainly demonstrate how some political opponents, funders of the political opposition and influential individuals linked to the opposition are arrested and detained after being sentenced in totally - or partially - fabricated judicial cases,” FIDH said.

“The most frequently used charges involve illegal storage of weapons or drugs, extortion, and attempting to overthrow the government.”

FIDH could not give the total number of political prisoners, publishing instead what they describe as eight pilot cases to give an overview of the problems being faced by opposition activists in Georgia. Opposition groups and rights activists say the real number of prisoners is much larger.

“Illegally detained people and people whose property has been seized are the biggest section of the population to have been harmed by this government. Sadly, there are no accurate figures for the number of these people just yet,” said Zakharia Kutsnashvili, head of the pressure group Law for People.

Saakashvili has consistently brushed off such allegations. He came to power in a bloodless 2003 coup – the so-called Rose Revolution – on promises to create democracy in Georgia and to take the country into the European Union and NATO. He has faced problems in doing so, not least from the massive opposition protests, but insists his goals have not changed.

“We are following through on the promises I made … to strengthen our democracy, foster pluralism, and expand individual liberties. Already, we have set reforms in motion, which within the next year will advance the progress of the Rose Revolution and irreversibly deepen our identity as the freest state in our region,” he told the General Assembly of the United Nations in September.

“We permitted nearly three months of opposition protests to proceed unhindered, even though they closed down the main street of our capital, reflecting our deep commitment to pluralism and our respect for dissent and freedom of speech.”

That is not a picture recognised by the leaders of the opposition groups he was referring to. They say they are working on creating a list of people arrested or prosecuted for political reasons. David Zurabishvili, leader of the Republican Party, said the people were arrested specifically for taking part in the protests the government claimed to have tolerated.

“There have been cases when people were arrested at protests organised by the opposition. Two supporters of the Republican Party were detained in Gori. That small town, and those people, know well what methods the authorities use to try to scare society, to deter people from taking part in the opposition protests,” he said.

One alleged example of a fabricated case is that of Nora Kvitsiani, sister of the leader of a paramilitary police unit that existed autonomously in a mountainous, Georgian-controlled region of Abkhazia. Emzar Kvitsiani, her brother, went into hiding in 2006 after resisting attempts by the government to disarm the unit.

His sister was then arrested and convicted of illegally owning weapons, stealing humanitarian aid, and commanding an armed group. She was imprisoned in 2007 for six and a half years. Her allies say a state audit showed no aid had been stolen, and it was never proven that the weapons belonged to her, rather than to her brother as she argued.

The government denies that Kvitsiani – and the other seven case studies in the FIDH report – are truly political prisoners but opposition activists say the findings are likely to increase western pressure on Georgia to follow through on its promises.

“The fact that there are political prisoners in Georgia is no longer in doubt. A different question is how to free them. If the authorities recognise that they are innocent, then we will have to punish the investigators, the prosecutors and pay compensation to the defendant, and the government will not do this,” said Sopho Khorguani, representative of the Alliance for Georgia.

“But, set against this, the West is putting pressure on the Georgian government and it will have to take some kind of decisions in response.”

Tea Topuria is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.
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