Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Wins Against Moscow at European Court

Human rights court says Russia engaged in “collective expulsion” of Georgians.
  • Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani (left) at the ECHR  in Strasbourg. (Photo: Georgian justice ministry website)
    Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani (left) at the ECHR in Strasbourg. (Photo: Georgian justice ministry website)

Government officials have welcomed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Russia abused the rights of Georgian nationals whom it deported en masse in 2006. 

In a July 3 ruling, the court ruled that Russia breached the European Convention on Human Rights when its police rounded up some 2,300 Georgian nationals, held them in detention, then loaded them onto transport planes and sent them to Georgia. Judges found that Moscow breached provisions banning collective expulsions of foreign nationals, outlawing inhuman or degrading treatment, and guaranteeing rights to liberty, to legal remedy, and to judicial review of detention orders.

Although Moscow said it was simply clamping down on illegal immigrants of any origin, the expulsions came at a difficult time in relations with Georgia, which had only recently expelled four Russian officers whom it accused of spying.

“A coordinated policy of arresting, detaining and expelling Georgian nationals was put in place in the Russian Federation,” EHCR judges ruled after hearing evidence from 21 witnesses and studying written reports.

The ruling delighted Georgian officials like Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who was in Strasbourg to hear the decision.

“I want to congratulate all citizens of Georgia who were victims of this degrading treatment, and to give them the gratifying news that the European court has defended their rights,” she said.

In similar vein, Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told reporters that “the Strasbourg court’s decision is a victory for our citizens”.

After the ECHR issued its judgement, the Russian justice ministry mounted a rearguard action, insisting that the court had not discovered any cases where individuals with a legitimate right to be in the country were removed.

“Only illegal immigrants faced deportation,” the ministry said in a statement.

The decision was a long time coming. Georgia sent documentation to Strasbourg in March 2007 seeking compensation on behalf of more than 2,300 plaintiffs. The first hearings took place in April 2009.

Among those anxiously awaiting the verdict was Nino Dzidzava, whose her husband Tengiz Togonidze was one of three individuals who died during the expulsions the ECHR examined.

Detained in October 2006, Togonidze was held for 15 days and denied access to a doctor despite being asthmatic. His condition deteriorated and he died while on a bus to Moscow, from where he was due to be deported.

“According to people who were in the bus with him, the Russians called my husband a ‘Georgian pig’, and when he fell ill, they refused to open the door of the bus to help him breathe. No one should be able to get away with that,” Dzidzava told IWPR. “We had such strong evidence that I was convinced we would win, and now I can’t express how happy I am.”

Lia Shioshvili was eight months pregnant and lost the child during the deportation process.

“No one can return my child to me, but when I remember those days, the hell that we went through, I think the Russians shouldn’t get away with it,” she told IWPR. “I want to thank the European court and our own governments past and present for the work they have done to defend our honour.”

The court gave the two parties a year to agree on the levels of compensation to be paid. Deputy Justice Minister Gocha Lortkipanidze said he was ready to discuss the matter with Russian officials with one precondition – “all the victims must receive compensation”.

The ECHR is also looking at dozens of cases filed by individuals deported in 2006.

“This decision is very important for the individual cases. It has created a firmer and better foundations for private cases,” said Lortkipanidze.

Given the present state of Russian-Georgian relations, it is unclear how the compensation issue can be discussed. The two countries fought a brief war in August 2008, and have not had diplomatic relations since then. Moscow’s formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states is a major stumbling block. Direct talks take place within two formats: one is the Geneva peace talks launched in 2008; the other route is Zurab Abashidze, a special envoy for relations with Moscow.

“We are trying to resolve our relations with Russia with constructive steps, but the main problem – the occupation of Georgia [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] – remains unresolved,” Panjikidze said. “Until that it resolved, there won’t be diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia.”

Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist and works for the Rustavi-2 broadcasting company.