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Tbilisi to Tighten Screws on NGO's

Georgia's national security ministry is working on a draft law that would strongly increase government control over NGO activities.
By Zaza Baazov

Georgia's non-governmental organisations are warning of dire consequences if a new draft bill goes through parliament that severely tightens government supervision of their activities.


The bill - entitled "On Suspension, Dissolution and Prohibition of Foreign-Managed Militant and Other Organisations" - was authored by the Georgian national security ministry.


Sources at the ministry told IWPR certain NGOs may be targeted as part of the ministry's counter-terrorism effort. "Georgia has no laws curbing extremism and terrorism," explained Nika Laliashvili, chief of the ministry's press service. "There are no legal barriers for an organisation like al-Qaeda to obtain official registration and lawfully open an office in Georgia under some innocent-sounding name."


The authors of the bill also say it will address militancy by extreme religious groups, which has become so rampant in Georgia that the country received an official warning from the Council of Europe at the end of February. President Eduard Shevardnadze urged the nation's law enforcement agencies to "watch out with greater vigilance for shameful manifestations of religious hatred".


"In the meantime, existing Georgian law does not allow us to prosecute religious militants on any charges except those of disturbing public order," said Laliashvili.


What infuriates Georgian NGOs and human rights activists, however, is that the new law is targeting all non-governmental organisations in blanket fashion. "This law is like a government's dream come true of doing away with its opponents by branding them 'enemies of the people' or 'traitors', " said Georgia's human rights commissioner Nana Devdariani.


"An organisation may be suspended or prohibited if it receives financial support from foreign or international entities, or cooperates with such entities," says one of the clauses of the new law. If this wording is passed, all NGOs and most political parties will be targeted.


Georgy Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre for Negotiating and Conflict Resolution, suggests that this could give the government strong new powers over the hundreds of non-state organisations in the country.


"With elections coming up, the national security ministry's legislative initiative seeks to bring all organisations, especially oppositional parties, under its heel. Moreover, the law stipulates that all international contacts will now require governmental approval. This would be a nice little earner for corrupt officials," he said.


"The law is designed to put legal mechanisms in place to influence local NGOs," observed Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. "The state should not try to control NGOs, but rather regulate them in accordance with the constitution. However, the government perceives the very independence of NGOs as a threat, and is thus taking steps to limit it."


Some analysts already argue that a number of the articles in the draft law are in conflict with Georgia's constitution. One says, "An organisation shall be prohibited if its CEO or rank-and-file member makes a public statement aimed against a certain ideological faction." In their opinion, this statement does not mesh with the constitutional provisions on the freedom of press.


The security ministry dismisses these and other worries, arguing that the bill "is being developed in consultation with western experts and is, in fact, modelled on similar laws already in existence in the West".


The vehement protests of NGOs, much of the Georgian media and several political parties suggest that the draft will not make it through the parliament in its current shape.


The authors themselves point out that it's just a first draft. "This is only a rough version. Why the uproar?" said Laliashvili.


However, some NGOs are warning this could be a political ploy. "In an uncharacteristic display of honesty, the government has decided to make the draft public before it is finalised. This raises a lot of questions," mused Nana Kakabadze, chair of the NGO Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights.


Kakabadze suggested the draft legislation was intentionally being made public in an unacceptable version. "As a result, the public are focussing on how it is being presented, ignoring the main danger, which is that NGOs may now be subjugated to the national security service," she speculated.


Government officials have spoken repeatedly in recent months of the need to drastically restrict independent organisations and one - unsuccessful - attempt has already been made to clamp down on the burgeoning non-governmental sector in Georgia.


Last summer, the Georgian finance minister issued an order requiring NGOs to secure the ministry's permission before receiving any shipments or grants from abroad. In September, the same minister followed up with another edict, placing all bank accounts held by independent groups under government supervision. NGOs were told they would need the minister's approval for all their financial transactions.


A storm of protest caused the finance minister to cancel his second order within four days, and then the first one as well.


Last November, the government came up with another scheme aimed at NGOs. Excerpts were read out to parliament of the action plan of Georgia's counter-terrorist centre that advised political surveillance and infiltration of secret service agents into NGOs, religious and ethnic groups and political parties.


National Security Minister Valery Khaburdzania admitted the document was authentic, but pointed out it was only a draft that had not yet been approved.


Wishing to avoid accusations of conspiracy, security officials say this time they have made sure the draft was presented to the public as early as possible. "We encourage NGOs and politicians to contribute to the draft. I'm positive it will take a generally acceptable shape in the end," said Nika Laliashvili earlier this week.


Meanwhile, the Georgian Association of Young Lawyers has published a statement expressing the hope that the draft "never comes close to becoming a law, not even in theory".


Zaza Baazov is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. Oksana Baachi works for the NGO EuroCaucAsia in Tbilisi