Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the members of the press and other media, and citizens generally were free to exercise this right, although the government did not adequately safeguard that freedom. During the year journalists, NGOs, and the international community raised serious concerns regarding the environment for media pluralism. In addition, the Public Defender’s Office noted in its April parliamentary report covering 2020 that the country lacked proper statistics on offenses committed against journalists.
Freedom of Expression: On March 1, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals overturned a 2019 decision that the NGO Transparency International/Georgia’s report on corruption raising concerns over judicial independence was not libelous. Civil society saw the decision as unsubstantiated and an attempt to interfere with the NGO’s freedom of expression. Transparency International/Georgia appealed the case, which was pending at the Supreme Court. NGOs accused the justice minister of attempting to restrict freedom of speech by suspending notary Bachana Shengelia from office in June 2020 for comments he posted on Facebook regarding the controversial 2018 death of his mother, school principal Ia Kerzaia (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Georgia for 2019, section 3). GYLA described the suspension as a restriction on freedom of expression and submitted a case on Shengelia’s behalf to the Constitutional Court in July 2020. The case remained pending.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. NGOs continued to express concern regarding the close relationship between Georgian Public Broadcaster and Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) and the ruling party, GNCC bias against opposition-leaning outlets, the public broadcaster’s editorial bias in favor of the ruling party, decreased media pluralism, criminal prosecutions against owners and directors of opposition-leaning outlets that appeared politically motivated, violence against journalists, impunity for attacks against journalists, the ruling party’s boycott of media critical of the government, and alleged wiretaps specifically targeting journalists.
The GNCC was influenced by the ruling party. Civil society reported on several shortcomings during the year. For example, Transparency International/Georgia reported limited competition and preferential treatment of incumbent and former commissioners and employees in the selection of GNCC members on July 2. The NGO also reported that persons working in communications did not view the GNCC election process as independent from political influence.
On April 14, the GNCC announced a tender for an audit of independent television ratings companies, which media representatives and watchdogs said “exceeds the responsibilities of the body.” Civil society organizations alleged that the audit would open the way for ratings companies owned by ruling-party supporters to begin to set the ratings, affecting what had been independent assessments. Later in the year, the GNCC announced a tender to audit the two rating companies used; Kantar, which was widely seen as being Georgian Dream-supported; and TV MR, which was seen to be more cooperative with outlets critical of the government. Kantar accepted the offer and was found to be within international standards. TV MR, however, did not accept and was not audited. The move to audit both firms was viewed by observers as an example of GNCC overstepping its mandate by initiating audits when it should be the responsibility of the companies to conduct such internal operations.
Statements by political leaders also degraded media plurality. For example, on February 16, Giorgi Volski, the first deputy speaker of parliament, said that “journalists in particular are involved in planning some kind of conspiracy, misinformation, sabotage.” The next day Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream party, said that “party televisions began to establish blasphemy in serials, thus accustoming the public to the insulting language.” This sort of rhetoric was used extensively by the ruling party (as it was used when other parties were in power) to call into question any reporting critical of the government. On October 30, the day of municipal runoff elections, Prime Minister Gharibashvili called a Mtavari Arkhi journalist a “provocateur.” Ruling party member of parliament Irakli “Dachi” Beraia referred to Formula TV as a “criminal thug of the [opposition United] National Movement.”
A significant number of journalists reported during the year that they were either prevented from covering public events or did not receive key public information when requested. Although nationwide statistics were not kept, Information Centers Network, a regional consortium of independent media outlets, filed 14 administrative complaints with local authorities for not receiving responses to requests for public information between May 1 and August 30, and twice as many by the end of the year. Civil society representatives observed the problem was not the law, which very clearly provides the public with the right to access information. The problem was the failure of the ruling party, as well as local and regional authorities, to implement the law. This situation further exacerbated an already adversarial relationship between media and the ruling party.
Media outlets, watchdog groups, and NGOs continued to express concern regarding decreased media pluralism and continuing political influence in media. Concerns also persisted regarding government interference with some media outlets. Persistent allegations of political pressure on public broadcasters continued. On August 9, journalist Irakli Absandze was dismissed by the Georgian Public Broadcaster. According to the Media Advocacy Coalition, Absandze’s dismissal was seen to be connected with his critical statements about the ruling party and the public broadcaster’s management. Absandze had criticized the July 5-6 violence against journalists and the ruling party’s ineffective response (see section 2.b.). Absandze subsequently filed a complaint to defend his rights, with Transparency International/Georgia providing legal support; however, no action was taken by the government to examine his case.
Following the July 5-6 violence against journalists (see section 2.b.), two key journalists from Rustavi 2 (a pro-Georgian Dream outlet) resigned, citing lack of editorial independence.
The Public Defender’s Office, some media watchers, NGOs, and opposition parties expressed suspicion that a number of criminal prosecutions against critical media outlets or their owners were politically motivated.
In early September, a few weeks before the municipal elections, the court resumed the government’s case against Mtavari Arkhi’s general director, Nika Gvaramia. The trial remained underway at year’s end. The opposition perceived this prosecution as the ruling party’s retribution for Mtavari Arkhi’s favorable coverage of the UNM. The case involved allegations that in 2015 Gvaramia exchanged advertising for vehicles from Porsche Center Tbilisi. In 2019 Gvaramia was charged with abuse of power, misappropriation of property, and commercial bribery. The public defender stated that holding a company director civilly liable for the company’s decision should apply only in exceptional circumstances and that criminal liability should be even rarer. Gvaramia and a number of media advocacy groups disputed the charges, claiming they were politically motivated. In 2020 Gvaramia claimed that he was physically assaulted and his family surveilled.
The OSCE/ODIHR preliminary assessment of the first round of the October 2 local elections stated, “The deterioration of the media environment as seen by recent cases of intimidation and threats against journalists and the law of swift and thorough investigation of these cases raised concerns about the ability of media to function in a safe and secure environment.” In its preliminary assessment of the second round of the local elections, the mission reported that the regional public broadcaster Adjara TV provided mostly neutral coverage of the campaign. In contrast, while the country’s public broadcaster allotted equal airtime to the ruling party and the largest opposition party, the tone in covering the ruling party “became more positive closer to election day.”
On September 30, two days before the municipal elections, the Ministry of Defense filed a lawsuit with Tbilisi City Court against Davit Kezerashvili, former Saakashvili administration defense minister, who was the majority owner of the government-critical Formula TV. The lawsuit requested more than five million euros ($5.8 million) in compensation for damage Kezerashvili allegedly caused during his tenure at the ministry. The first court session was scheduled for January 27, 2022. Opposition groups described the case as politically motivated.
Avtandil Tsereteli, the father of TV Pirveli’s founder, was also charged in 2019 for his alleged involvement in a money laundering case along with the founder of TBC Bank and his deputy, who were both current leaders of the opposition party Lelo. A verdict was pending.
The law provides that media outlets are obligated to disclose information concerning their owners to the GNCC.
Violence and Harassment: According to Transparency International/Georgia, as of the end of September, 93 cases of violence had been recorded against media representatives since October 2020, along with 55 instances of covert wiretaps of journalists. The NGO Reporters Without Borders described the illegal surveillance of journalists (see section 1.f.) as “very disturbing” and called on authorities for an investigation. Journalists of Radio Tavisupleba (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and Formula, among others, confirmed that the wiretapping files reflected their respective conversations.
During the year there were also reports of harassment by security services. In March the opposition channel Pirveli released purported secret recordings of Bera Ivanishvili, son of the ruling party’s benefactor (former prime minister and then party head, Bidzina Ivanishvili), allegedly asking Irakli Garibashvili (then minister of internal affairs, later defense minister, and during the year, prime minister) to punish his social media critics (he was 15 years old at the time). Some of the recordings discussed alleged calls made by security service personnel to intimidate social media users.
After the release, the Prosecutor General’s Office received a court order to “raid” TV Pirveli’s office to find the source of the “illegal” recordings. Civil society and the international community denounced the secret recordings and intimidation of journalists for the purposes of revealing their sources. Four months later government forensics officials claimed the recordings were pieced together and not authentic.
During the year there were a significant number of attacks on journalists by far-right groups and politically motivated actors. Civil society observers believed that the government did not adequately investigate and prosecute such violence. In addition to assaults of July 5-6 (see section 2.b., Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association), there were numerous attacks on members of the media, notably on February 25 when Formula TV host Vakho Sanaia was physically attacked for being a journalist. On August 25, the three attackers were found guilty after having served six months of pretrial confinement, sentenced to 150 hours of community service, and fined. The perceived leniency of the sentence generated outrage by media rights defenders and vindication in more far-right circles on social media, where there were comments posted that Sanaia “had it coming.” Formula TV experienced another attack in April, when two employees (identified by station markers on their cars) were targeted, with one employee suffering a beating and both the cars involved badly damaged. No suspects were prosecuted. Other examples included Emma Gogokhia, a Mtavari Arkhi journalist, who reportedly was threatened with death by the mayor of Mestia on March 6.
On May 17, the television company GPB Channel 1 reported that protesters in Dmanisi physically assaulted a GPB camera crew, a journalist, a cameraman, and a photojournalist who were covering events. Representatives of other media outlets also were injured and their work disrupted.
The Coalition for Media Advocacy identified 20 cases of interference with the professional activities of journalists from outlets that were critical of the government during the October 30 municipal runoff elections in Tbilisi and the regions. The majority of the cases reportedly involved interference by ruling-party supporters. The coalition issued a statement that asserted that “law enforcement officials have failed to ensure media representatives’ physical safety and effective elimination of obstructive circumstances.”
On February 18, Russian citizen Magomed Gutsiev was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison by the Tbilisi City Court for a plot to kill Giorgi Gabunia, a Mtavari Arkhi journalist who in 2019 insulted Russian President Putin on a live program. Gutsiev appealed the conviction on March 17. On October 21, the Tbilisi Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court.
On July 11, Lekso Lashkarava, a cameraman of TV Pirveli, was found dead in his home. During the July 5 attacks (see section 2.b.), he had been severely beaten. The statements by law enforcement agencies soon after his death appeared aimed at discrediting the journalist instead of determining the cause of death.
Following Lashkarava’s death, more than 70 media organizations issued a joint statement on July 11 that “cases of violation of the rights of media representatives” in the country had “reached a critical level.” The statement criticized authorities for failing to ensure the safety of journalists, insufficiently investigating violence against journalists, including the July 5 violence in which 53 members of the media were injured (see section 2.b.), and statements by ruling party officials that the statement said further encouraged such violence. On September 30, Transparency International/Georgia stated in part that physical security for journalists in the country had become “extremely dangerous” and that critical media representatives faced particular risk that was exacerbated by “aggressive rhetoric” from government officials and inadequate investigations of violent incidents.
Some watchdog groups such as Transparency International/Georgia expressed concern that law enforcement bodies summoned journalists for questioning and asked them to identify their sources. The law allows journalists to maintain the anonymity of their sources and not to be compelled to testify as a witness.
Nongovernmental Impact: Media observers, NGO representatives, and opposition politicians alleged Georgian Dream party chair and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continued to exert a powerful influence over the government and judiciary, including in government actions against the owner of TV Pirveli and the general director of Mtavari Arkhi, whose court cases remained open as of November.
On April 6, far-right group Georgian March had a number of Facebook pages removed for what Facebook called “inauthentic behavior.” After the July 5 violence against journalists and others (see section 2.b.), the Facebook page for the far-right media outlet Alt-Info was taken down in connection with the July 5 events. According the Mythdetectors.ge, “Programs of Alt-Info are being shared by the Facebook page Alter-platform.” On December 7, Alt-Info’s leaders registered the political party Conservative Movement of Georgia with the National Agency of Public Registry. As of year’s end, more than 30 individuals were in pretrial detention on charges of abusing journalists, although none were identified as organizers.
While there was a relatively greater diversity of media in Abkhazia than in South Ossetia, media in both Russian-occupied regions remained restricted by Russian and de facto authorities.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; government respect for these rights was uneven.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution and law generally provide for freedom of assembly. Human rights organizations expressed concern, however, regarding provisions in the law, including the requirement that political parties and other organizations give five days’ notice to local authorities to assemble in a public area, thereby precluding spontaneous demonstrations. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported that police sometimes restricted, ineffectively managed, or failed to protect freedom of assembly.
To combat the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 23, parliament extended for the third time amendments to the law giving the government power to restrict movement and gatherings and to implement other measures without a state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until January 1, 2022.
While a number of protests took place during the year, there were reports that police at times restricted or failed to protect individuals’ right to freedom of assembly. For example, on July 5, police failed to take appropriate action to protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly for individuals who had planned to participate in a Pride event. Approximately 3,000 far-right demonstrators violently rioted through Tbilisi, destroying an opposition protest site at parliament, attacking NGO offices, and assaulting more than 50 journalists and others following statements from Prime Minister Garibashvili that called the planned Tbilisi Pride event, March for Dignity, inappropriate and described it as a plot by “Saakashvili and the radical opposition” aimed at sparking tension and destabilization in the country. The prime minister alleged that 95 percent of the population opposed the event as a justification for blaming Tbilisi Pride for the violence.
The Georgian Democracy Initiative reported that far-right counterdemonstrators were organized by Guram Palavandishvili, a member of the pro-Russian and nationalist group Georgian Idea and the head of the Society for the Protection of Children’s Rights; Levan Vasadze, a businessman and the founder of the Unity, Essence, Hope political party; and Konstantin Morgoshia’s online outlet Alt-Info. Protesters included a number of Georgian Orthodox priests, some of whom posted videos on social media that appeared to call for and endorse the violence.
Reports and videos showed that police failed to arrest far-right actors as they assaulted police, journalists, and others seen to be associated with the pride march or Western values. The group attempted to storm parliament but was unable to do so and tore down the EU flag flying in front of parliament. One Polish tourist was stabbed, allegedly for appearing to be associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. LGBTQI+ activists described feeling hunted as the locations where they sought refuge were discovered by far-right groups. Activists expressed concern that they were found due to government assistance. Throughout the day the Ministry of Internal Affairs failed to deploy riot control measures. Weeks in advance, ministry officials pressured organizers to cancel the March for Dignity, stating they could not protect the right to assembly because they expected between 20,000 and 50,000 counterdemonstrators.
The violence by far-right groups, comments by the government, and the inaction of security forces was widely condemned by NGOs, the Public Defender’s Office (the ombudsperson), and the international community.
On July 6, a spontaneous protest against the July 5 violence occurred outside of parliament. Far-right groups mobilized approximately 500 counterprotesters, seemingly led by Guram Palavandishvili, who threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks at peaceful protesters and police. Once again police did not deploy sufficient riot control equipment and personnel. As the peaceful protesters were dispersing, far-right groups broke past police and chased peaceful protesters and again took down the EU flag and burned it.
A total of 31 individuals were charged in six separate criminal indictments as of year’s end. The majority of those indicted, 27, were charged with participation in acts of group violence, prevention of journalistic duties, and unlawful entry and threats of violence. Three individuals were charged with raiding the Tbilisi Pride office, including participating in the use of violence and threats of violence as well as for violating private and public property as a group, while one person was charged with battering a civilian. The cases were in various stages of trial with two defendants pleading not guilty and one defendant pleading partially guilty, claiming he hit someone because he was provoked. All three defendants were released from pretrial detention. Authorities did not, however, make any formal arrests of individuals responsible for organizing the violence.
There were reports police continued to employ the administrative offenses code to restrict freedom of assembly. On April 13, police arrested six persons under the code during a protest against the planned Namakhvani Power Plant. This followed an April 12 statement by 13 Georgian civil society organizations that expressed solidarity with protesters against the project and stated “guaranteed rights to assembly and manifestation (were) gravely violated by the state.” Transparency International and the Open Society Foundation issued similar statements critical of government efforts to restrict the freedom of assembly of the Namakhvani protestors.
During the year the Tbilisi City Court continued to try three cases connected with the June 2019 events. The cases involved charges against one Internal Affairs Ministry Special Tasks Department officer for intentionally targeting nonviolent protesters and two criminal police officers for abuse of power; one officer was accused of beating a protester while arresting him, the other of beating a protester under arrest. The three defendants were charged with exceeding authority by using violence or weapons, a crime punishable by five to eight years’ imprisonment and deprivation of the right to hold public office for up to three years. All three defendants were released under the amnesty law passed on September 7.
Freedom of Association
There were reports that some government representatives and supporters of the ruling party pressured political opposition figures and supporters (see sections 1.d. and 1.e.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation of citizens, but de facto authorities and Russian occupying forces limited this freedom in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In-country Movement: There were substantial impediments to internal movement due to a lack of access to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. International relief organizations reported that the majority of the approximately 290,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia wished to return to their areas of origin but lacked adequate security provisions and political, human, economic, and movement protections absent a political resolution to the conflicts.
Foreigners were restricted from moving in and out of South Ossetia, but some could access Abkhazia with approval from the de facto authorities. The law prohibits entry into and exit from the Russian-occupied regions through the territory of neighboring states (i.e., Russia). There were reports in 2018 that Russia prohibited citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States countries from entering Abkhazia except from Russia, which was against Georgian law. These citizens, however, were at times able to enter from Tbilisi-administered territory if they were staff members of international organizations or if there was a request from an international organization, such as the United Nations.
Russia and Abkhaz de facto authorities limited international organizations’ ability to operate in Abkhazia, although international organizations had greater ability to operate there than in South Ossetia. Russian and South Ossetian de facto authorities limited access of international organizations, including humanitarian organizations, to South Ossetia. Before COVID-19, the cochairs of the Geneva International Discussions (GID) – representing the United Nations, the OSCE, and the EU – visited South Ossetia and Abkhazia approximately quarterly prior to most rounds of the discussions. The ICRC, with an office in Tskhinvali, was the only international organization represented in South Ossetia.
De facto authorities and Russian forces in the Russian-occupied territories also restricted the movement of the local population across the ABLs. Although they showed some flexibility for travel for medical care, pension services, religious services, and education, in several instances during the year de facto authorities, particularly in South Ossetia, hindered access to medical care in Tbilisi-administered territory for residents in the occupied territories. There was, however, some effective cooperation across the Abkhazia ABL to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All crossings with South Ossetia remained closed by de facto authorities. The GID cochairs and other international actors continued to express concern that prolonged closures of crossings would undermine livelihoods; prevent local residents from getting the pensions, food, and medicine they needed; and potentially cause a new wave of displacement.
In February, Abkhaz de facto authorities eased requirements for passage through the Enguri crossing point along the Abkhazia ABL after closing it for nearly a year. The crossing was opened to all residents of Abkhazia in July. All other Abkhazia ABL crossing points remained closed by de facto authorities. According to sources, the closures particularly affected ethnic-Georgian residents of Gali, preventing them from collecting their pensions and allowances or receiving scheduled (nonemergency) medical treatment in Tbilisi-administered territory. Clinics in Gali were also said to be largely ignored by de facto authorities in terms of receiving international humanitarian medical assistance.
On April 7, four Georgians drowned while trying to cross the Enguri River from occupied Abkhazia into Tbilisi-administered territory. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continued to facilitate cooperation between Tbilisi and Abkhaz de facto authorities to establish a “humanitarian corridor” at the Enguri crossing point, which enabled ethnic-Georgian residents of Abkhazia to access life-saving medicines and pensions from the government. UNHCR temporarily ceased the program during the winter holidays but then experienced problems restarting it. The corridor resumed in February and was expanded to include pensioners, persons with disabilities, and mothers of three or more children.
Regarding travel documents, residents of Abkhazia who had Georgian citizenship could not use their Georgian passports to cross the Abkhazia ABL to or from Tbilisi-administered territory. Since 2018 de facto authorities prohibited older Soviet-era passports used by thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia for crossing, threatening the livelihood of many residents. De facto authorities claimed residents without valid crossing documents were allowed to apply for residence permits (reserved for “foreign” residents) that would enable them to cross but would strip them of voting, property, and other rights. During the year only holders of new Abkhaz “passports,” permanent residence permits, and temporary identification documents known as Form No. 9 were allowed to cross. Form No. 9 identification was given to any resident who applied for a residence permit and was valid until that person received the permit or for a maximum of six months. There were still some residents of Abkhazia without valid documentation.
Georgian passport holders not resident in Abkhazia could cross a checkpoint if they possessed invitation letters cleared by the de facto “state security services” allowing them to enter Abkhazia. The latter did not consistently provide permission to cross and limited movement to specific areas. Crossing permits issued by South Ossetia de facto authorities were the only document that allowed movement across the South Ossetia ABL to or from Tbilisi-administered territory.
Abkhaz de facto authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox Church clergy from entering the occupied territory.
Individuals who approached the ABLs or crossings risked detention by members of the Russian Federal Border Service (referred to hereinafter as Russian guards). Russian guards along the Abkhazia ABL typically enforced the boundary-crossing rules imposed by de facto authorities through detentions and fines. Along the South Ossetia ABL, Russian guards frequently transferred individuals to de facto authorities. The State Security Service of Georgia reported detentions by de facto authorities typically lasted two to three days until the detainee paid fines set by a de facto “court,” although some sentences for “violations of the state border” carried considerably longer terms.
The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) knew of 16 individuals detained along the ABL with Abkhazia and 58 detained along the ABL with South Ossetia. Local sources reported that on several occasions, de facto security actors or Russian guards crossed into Tbilisi-administered territory to detain an individual. Most often, the arrested individuals were accused of violating the “state border.” According to EUMM, many detainees were obliged to sign documents in Russian that they did not understand.
De facto authorities continued to expand and reinforce fencing and other physical barriers along the ABL between Tbilisi-administered territory and South Ossetia. This expansion of the Russian “borderization” policy further restricted movement, creating physical barriers and obstructing access to agricultural land, water supplies, and cemeteries. For example, in April the State Security Service told a media site that Russian security forces were conducting “borderization” activities in three Georgian villages, Takhtisdziri, Dirbi, and Ghogheti, along the South Ossetia ABL. Security forces reportedly placed wooden poles in the ground with the expectation that the forces would later lay barbed wire and fences.
According to UNHCR, as of December there were approximately 290,000 IDPs from the 1992-93 and 2008 conflicts. UNHCR estimated 240,000 persons were IDPs, with the remaining 50,000 in “IDP-like” situations in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. This number included individuals who returned to Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as those displaced in the 2008 conflict, who subsequently were relocated or obtained housing or cash compensation. Governmental responsibilities for IDPs are divided among the Ministries of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health, and Social Affairs; the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality; and the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure.
Most persons displaced in 2008 received formal IDP status in accordance with national legislation, although some individuals who were not displaced by the 2008 conflict and lived close to the ABL were officially described as being in an “IDP-like situation.” The government provided monthly allowances to persons recognized as IDPs, promoted their socioeconomic integration, and sought to create conditions for their return in safety and dignity.
Despite their 1994 agreement with Georgia, Russia, and UNHCR that called for the safe, secure, and voluntary return of IDPs who fled during the 1992-93 war, Abkhaz de facto authorities continued to prevent the return of those displaced by the war. Between 45,000 and 60,000 IDPs had returned since that time to the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli regions of eastern Abkhazia, but de facto authorities refused to allow the return of IDPs to other regions. De facto authorities prevented IDPs living elsewhere in the country from reclaiming homes in Abkhazia based on a “law” that expropriated all “abandoned property” from the 1992-93 war. IDPs who returned and managed to obtain Abkhaz “passports” were allowed to buy and sell property.
Ethnic Georgians living in Russian-occupied Abkhazia lacked fundamental rights and confronted onerous registration requirements that threatened their continued status. De facto authorities continued to pressure ethnic Georgians to acquire a “foreign residency permit” that allows the holder to cross the ABL and remain in Abkhazia for a period of five years. An applicant must, however, accept the status of an alien (i.e., a Georgian living as a foreigner in Abkhazia), may not purchase property, may not transfer residency rights of property to children born in de facto controlled territory, may not vote, and must accept a lack of other basic rights. In 2019 Abkhaz de facto authorities required additional permits and threatened to discontinue ABL crossing with a Form No. 9 administrative pass. During 2020, before the pandemic closures, Form No. 9 was reportedly allowed sporadically for crossing after the new de facto president, Aslan Bzhania, came to power. Following the full opening of border crossing points for Abkhazia residents in July, de facto authorities allowed the use of Form No. 9, including for residents who were stranded in Tbilisi-administered territory and whose Form No. 9s had expired.
Since 2015 UNHCR reported a widening documentation gap in Russian-occupied Abkhazia, noting fewer residents of Gali district held valid documents due to the expiration and nonrenewal of documentation by de facto authorities there. The solution offered by de facto authorities, i.e., to issue permanent residence permits, did not provide the full scope of rights and was not welcomed by the majority of Gali district residents who did not wish to declare themselves foreigners living in their ancestral land.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs, however, alleged executive and judicial authorities made politically motivated decisions in response to asylum requests by some Turkish citizens and a number of Azerbaijani citizens, although they reported the situation had improved since 2018. UNHCR reported concerns regarding applications from citizens of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen being rejected automatically on national security grounds, without a thorough examination on a case-by-case basis of the threat posed by the individual applicants. Rejected asylum seekers from those countries were rarely deported, nor were they detained, which brought into question whether they posed a security threat.
The backlog of asylum cases led to significant delays. Since 2018 the average time for consideration of an asylum case increased from six months to two years. After the asylum authority’s decision, in case of appeal, an asylum seeker may have to wait for another two years to receive the final decision of the court.
The law distinguishes among three types of protection: refugee status (as per the 1951 Refugee Convention), protected humanitarian status (complementary protection), and temporary protection. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees the adjudication of all three.
In 2020 the number of asylum seekers decreased as the borders of the country were mostly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By December 2020 the overall recognition rate had dropped to 7 percent, compared with 16 percent in 2019. The asylum system adapted to the COVID-19 situation and guaranteed access to asylum through the introduction of online registration procedures for asylum seekers during lockdowns.
The overall protection situation became more complicated for persons in need of asylum or refuge due to the additional socioeconomic problems caused by the pandemic. Gaps remained between asylum seekers’ access to the country’s territory and the fairness and efficiency of the refugee status determination procedures; the provision of assistance by national authorities, including free legal aid at the administrative stage of the asylum procedure; the need to adjust the reception capacities to the needs of asylum seekers; and the effective engagement of the judiciary in the substantive review of asylum decisions.
Refoulement: During the year UNHCR learned of a few cases of asylum seekers who were denied access to the territory (and consequently the asylum procedure) at the border and whose return may have amounted to indirect refoulement. The penalization for irregular entry for individuals accepted into the asylum procedures remained a problem.
Employment: Persons under international protection have legal access to the labor market. Foreigners, including persons under international protection, could register in the Worknet state program for vocational training and skills development. The program, however, was available only in the Georgian language. Lacking formal contracts and frequently being ineligible for public employment programs, such persons often had nowhere to turn. UNHCR closely cooperated with the Employment Agency to enhance access to the labor market.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided limited assistance to persons with protected status. The government supported an integration center to provide structured integration programs for such persons and a reception center that had adequate services for asylum seekers and capacity for approximately 150 persons.
Access to education remained a problem due to the language barrier, notwithstanding the government’s provision of Georgian language classes.
Asylum seekers received no financial support from the government, and the government-run reception center only assisted 10 percent of the asylum-seeking population. UNHCR provided financial support for vulnerable cases.
Persons with disabilities and mental or psychological needs also encountered problems in accessing various services and allowances. There was no state referral mechanism for persons with specific needs, and UNHCR was often approached for additional support.
Durable Solutions: The government offered a path to naturalization for refugees residing on its territory that included required language and history tests. Authorities purportedly denied naturalization to some applicants based on national security concerns. The law requires 10 years of residency for citizenship, further complicating the ability for refugees to receive Georgian citizenship.
Temporary Protection: The law on the legal status of aliens and stateless persons provides avenues for temporary stay permits for individuals who were rejected for international protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin due to the reasons stated in the law. The Ministry of Internal Affairs may grant temporary stay permits to individuals who meet the criteria for refugee status or humanitarian protection but who were rejected on national security grounds.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal if it is committed by use of force, threat of use of force, or with a victim of a “helpless condition,” a legal term generally applied to elderly individuals, persons with mental or physical disabilities, or others deemed unable to resist. Some expressed concern that the definition of rape did not conform to international standards to combat violence against women, and that the lack of a positive consent framework meant that some rapes went uninvestigated or unpunished. A convicted first-time offender may be imprisoned for up to eight years. The government did not enforce the law effectively.
Investigative authorities lacked training on effective procedures on case handling and evidence collection. Survivors were often told to focus on physical violence as proof of sexual violence. GYLA reported sexual violence was prevalent and underreported. In only a small number of reported cases were perpetrators convicted. Prosecutors applied overly burdensome evidence requirements for bringing charges against perpetrators of sexual violence, while overwhelmingly strict requirements for convictions of sexual violence crimes were applied by judges.
The Public Defender’s Office noted in its 2020 report, released in April, serious legislative shortcomings in the regulation of crimes involving sexual violence, as well as in investigation, criminal prosecution, and court hearing of such crimes, falling short of the standards of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence and international human rights. The office’s analysis showed that in the cases of rape and other sexual violence, courts did not consider the absence of a survivor’s consent an integral part of the definition of crime. Furthermore, the legislation does not consider a broad spectrum of circumstances that may affect the survivor’s will and provides for a disproportionately lenient punishment for a crime committed in certain conditions.
The law criminalizes domestic violence. In cases that do not result in physical injury, penalties for conviction of domestic violence include 80 to 150 hours of community service or imprisonment for up to two years. Domestic and gender-based violence remained a significant problem that the government took several steps to combat. The Ministry of Internal Affairs had a risk assessment tool that enables a police officer to decide whether to issue a restraining order based on a questionnaire available in the restraining order protocol, the data assessment, and risk analysis. In addition, if there was a high risk of recurrence of violence, a system of electronic surveillance allowed the Ministry of Internal Affairs to monitor abusers 24 hours a day. The high rate of domestic violence showed reporting of incidents increased in the country and that police were responding. The 112 Emergency Center also deployed an app that allows survivors of domestic or other violence to communicate via text message with emergency operators, making it easier to report abuse without alerting the perpetrator who may still be nearby. Shortcomings, however, remained. In one example, in 2019 an employee of the Tbilisi City Council accused council member Ilia Jishkariani of sexual assault and beating. The Prosecutor’s Office charged Jishkariani with sexual and other violence; the trial at Tbilisi City Court, which started in 2019, continued as of year’s end.
In June parliament approved legislation on the introduction of witness and survivor advocates that sit within police units. The provisions, which took effect on June 24, allow survivor advocates to support witnesses and survivors during the legal proceedings by establishing effective communication between them and investigators, provide necessary information during the investigation, and offer state services and assist in the application of such services. As of November there were 13 such advocates assigned to major police departments. Previously, these positions existed only at the Prosecution Service.
Despite legislative changes, the Public Defender’s Office reported in its annual report for 2020 that authorities lacked a comprehensive approach to combating domestic violence and violence against women, and there was insufficient coordination among government agencies.
The Public Defender’s Office highlighted a shortage of measures to prevent violence against women and to empower survivors of domestic violence. The office analyzed gender-based killings (femicides) and concluded they demonstrated an absence of mechanisms to prevent violence against women in the country.
The law provides for measures to detect signs of domestic violence in minors by crisis and shelter staff and promotes a prevention-oriented approach. The Public Defender’s Office and women’s rights NGOs emphasized there remained a need for the government to improve coordination between government agencies working on the matter.
NGOs and the government expanded services provided to survivors of domestic violence in recent years. GYLA remained concerned that notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, official statistics on domestic violence and violence against women did not change significantly, which indicated a possible underreporting of domestic violence incidents by victims.
Domestic violence laws mandate the provision of temporary protective measures, including shelter, protective orders, and restraining orders that prohibit an abuser from coming within 330 feet of the survivor and from using common property, such as a residence or vehicle, for up to nine months.
In 2020 authorities began using electronic surveillance bracelets for domestic violence abusers. The use of electronic surveillance is subject to a judicial decision. Police assess the risk of recurrence of violence and, in parallel with issuing the restraining order, are required to submit a report to the court for approval within 24 hours. Both the electronic surveillance period and the validity of a restraining order last for one month and require consent of the survivor.
Local NGOs and the government jointly operated a 24-hour hotline and shelters for abused women and their minor children, although space in the shelters was limited and only five of the country’s 10 regions had facilities.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Kidnapping women for marriage occurred in remote areas and in ethnic minority communities but was rare. The Public Defender’s Office reported some cases of kidnapping for forced marriage and early marriage in its 2020 report.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is illegal under the code of administrative offenses but is not criminalized; it remained a problem in the workplace. By law sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination and is defined as an unwanted physical, verbal, or nonverbal action of a sexual nature that aims to degrade or results in the degradation of a person or creation of a hostile environment for that person. Based on laws on sexual harassment, the public defender analyzes the case and provides recommendations on the case to authorized persons at the institution where the violation took place. During the year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure, Civil Service Bureau, State Inspector’s Service, and an office in the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport developed internal regulatory frameworks for responding to workplace sexual harassment incidents, according to UN Women.
Under the code of administrative offenses, sexual harassment victims may file complaints with police. If found guilty, a person can be punished with a token monetary fine; repeated violations result in an increased fine or correctional work for up to one month. Repeated violations in the case of a minor, a pregnant woman, a person unable to resist due to physical or mental helplessness, a person with a disability, or in the presence of a minor with prior knowledge leads to a more substantial fine. Through October the Public Defender’s Office examined four cases of alleged sexual harassment and identified violations in two instances. Others were pending.
The public defender considered especially problematic a selective approach applied by authorities to instances of violence against women and domestic violence involving influential persons as abusers. In such cases authorities often delayed their response, leaving the impression that preference was given to the abuser’s, rather than the victim’s, interests. Victims often had to go public to prompt action by relevant authorities.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Authorities regulated the use of surrogacy services. A Ministry of Justice decree regulating civil acts restricts the right to surrogacy to heterosexual couples who have been married or living together for more than one year. Women and LGBTQI+ rights organizations considered the restriction an infringement on the ability of single women and LGBTQI+ persons to have a child.
The UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) reported that women from minority communities, women from rural areas, and poor women faced barriers in accessing information related to their reproductive health and financial barriers limited access to customized contraceptive options for many women.
According to the Public Defender’s Office, limited access to information about contraceptives remained a problem for girls and women of childbearing age. The office stated human sexuality education was not fully integrated into school curriculums. Programs in schools failed to provide information to teenagers on safer sex. The lack of comprehensive education prevented girls from understanding the risks associated with early marriage and protecting themselves from early pregnancy.
The Public Defender’s Office stated in its 2020 annual report that “women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, full integration of family planning services and contraceptives into primary care, as well as integration of comprehensive education on human sexuality into the formal education system remain challenging.” Women in rural areas, especially remote mountain villages, lacked regular access to family planning services and clinics. Women often had to travel to larger towns for these services, causing additional financial burden.
While women have the ability to access skilled personal medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth, the use of maternal health services decreased during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated movement restrictions. The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of the postpartum care needed for the prevention of maternal mortality and for maintaining women’s mental and physical well-being. Maternal health services were somewhat limited for women who did not speak Georgian.
The Agency for Social Care, under the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health and Social Affairs, provided medical, psychological, legal, and additional assistance to survivors of sexual violence.
The UNFPA reported that the state funded services for survivors of sexual violence based on a decree that stipulates the state must fund certain services, including, but not limited to, emergency contraceptives and postexposure prophylaxis. Regulations, however, require survivors of sexual assault, who may hesitate to come forward, to notify police to receive these services. Victims of trafficking in persons and domestic violence do not need to cooperate with police to receive services.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women and men, including under family, religious, personal status and nationality laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing business or property.
Civil society organizations continued to report discrimination against women in the workplace. The Public Defender’s Office monitored gender equality complaints, in particular those involving domestic violence and workplace harassment, and stated that gender equality remained a problem. The office considered the small number of government projects, programs, and initiatives designed to empower women to be inadequate to achieve gender equality.
The law prohibits discrimination. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the government “instead of tackling systemic inequality practices, largely was focused on eliminating individual cases of discrimination.”
The Public Defender’s Office and NGOs reported some instances of discrimination against minorities. As of year’s end, the office had received 15 claims of discrimination based on nationality or ethnic origin. The Public Defender’s Office reported it did not receive any complaints during the year alleging racial discrimination by law-enforcement officials.
There were multiple incidents of ethnic or religiously motivated violence during the year. For example, on May 16, a fight broke out in a store owned by an ethnic Azeri in the town of Dmanisi. The conflict occurred when Svans (a subgroup of ethnic Georgians) were denied credit for their attempted purchase. The fight quickly escalated into a riot between Svans and ethnic Azeris. Police arrested six Svans in connection to the riot, and hundreds of Svans who were residents of nearby villages protested for their release. Police released the six, the group returned to ethnic Azeri neighborhoods, and another clash between the two ethnic groups resulted in dozens of injuries on May 17. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri and State Security Service chief Grigol Liluashvili traveled to Dmanisi on May 17 to condemn the violence, stating that the ethnic Azeris were Georgian citizens and such violence would not be tolerated. After intervention from religious leaders from the Georgian Orthodox Church and the mufti of Eastern Georgia, the groups ended the conflict. No one involved was charged with any crimes.
During the year the Prosecutor General’s Office charged nine individuals with committing a crime based on nationality, race, or ethnicity.
Media outlets reported numerous cases of hate speech targeting minority groups during the year.
In addition to political, civic, economic, and cultural obstacles, weak Georgian-language skills remained the main impediment to integration for members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Some minorities asserted the law requiring “adequate command of the official language” to work as a civil servant excluded them from participating in government. The Public Defender’s Office reported that involving ethnic minorities in national decision-making processes remained a problem due to the small number of representatives of ethnic minorities in the central government.
The government continued its “1+4” program for ethnic minorities to study the Georgian language for one year prior to their university studies. Under a quota system, the government assigned 12 percent of all bachelor or higher certificate-level placements to students with ethnic minority backgrounds. Of these reserved slots, ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities each received 40 percent (5 percent of the total), while Ossetian and Abkhaz communities received 10 percent each (1 percent of the total).
Abkhaz de facto authorities continued policies that threatened the legal status of ethnic minorities, including Georgians, Armenians, Greeks, Roma, and Syrians, living in Abkhazia.
The government continued to report discrimination against ethnic Georgians in the Russian-occupied territories. The Public Defender’s Office continued to note the case of Tamar Mearakishvili, an activist in South Ossetia who alleged persecution by the de facto authorities because of her Georgian ethnicity. In April the de facto prosecutor dropped a slander charge against Mearakishvili but was reportedly reviewing previous charges of illegal acquisition of citizenship and possession of Georgian citizenship. In 2019 de facto authorities in Akhalgori had cleared Mearakishvili of charges and lifted all restrictions imposed on her, including the restriction on leaving South Ossetia. The de facto prosecutor appealed the decision, and the court dismissed all charges later that year. The de facto prosecutor appealed the decision; in January 2020 the de facto supreme court partly satisfied the appeal, returning one case to the trial court. At the same time, in February 2020 the de facto prosecutor filed the same charges against Mearakishvili in the other case in which the de facto supreme court had acquitted Mearakishvili. In September 2020 Mearakishvili reported she had been without electricity since the middle of the month in what she characterized as an act of retribution by Akhalgori de facto prosecutor Alan Kulumbegov. Prior to the cut-off of her electricity, she reportedly complained to the de facto prosecutor general’s office that Kulumbegov repeatedly sought to blackmail her.
Birth Registration: By law citizenship derives from parents at birth or from birth within the country’s territory; children born to stateless parents in the country are citizens. According to UNICEF, 99 percent of children were registered before reaching the age of five.
While IDP returnees were in principle able to register their children’s births with de facto authorities, they reportedly preferred to have their births registered with Georgian authorities.
Education: Children of noncitizens often lacked documentation to enroll in school. The level of school attendance was low for children belonging to disadvantaged and marginalized groups, such as street children and children with disabilities or in foster care.
According to a multiple indicator cluster survey conducted in 2018 by the national statistics office GEOstat and the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health with UNICEF support, total enrollment of preschool children between the ages of three and five was 82 percent. Enrollment rates were lower for children of ethnic minorities (the rate for Azeri children was 28.8 percent, while the rate for Armenian children was 68.8 percent) as well as children from socially vulnerable groups (poor or large families, single parent families, IDPs, families with persons with disabilities) (63.6 percent) and rural communities (70.2 percent).
According to a UNICEF study released in 2018, most street children did not have access to either education or medical services beyond emergency care. According to a public defender report, most street children were vulnerable to violence and had limited access to education or health care.
Abkhaz de facto authorities did not always provide ethnic Georgians opportunities for education in their native language. De facto authorities dismissed ethnic Georgian teachers in Abkhazia deemed to have insufficient knowledge of Russian. The language of instruction for students in first through fourth grades in Lower Gali was Russian. Russian was the only instructional language in the Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire zones, and de facto authorities prohibited Georgian-language instruction there.
The Public Defender’s Office noted that in the Gali, Ochamchire, and Tkvarcheli districts, ethnic Georgian students and teachers had poor command of Russian, and therefore Russian-only instruction had significantly affected the quality of their education. Local communities had to either pay for teachers, arrange for teachers to cross from Tbilisi-administered territory to teach, or send their children across the ABL for Georgian-language lessons. According to the EUMM, some Gali students faced difficulties in crossing the ABL to take university entrance examinations.
De facto South Ossetian authorities also required ethnic Georgians of all ages to study in Russian.
Child Abuse: The law provides for the right to dignity, life, survival, and development, and prohibits discrimination. Conviction for various forms of child abuse, including trafficking, forced labor, or forced begging, is punishable by a spectrum of noncustodial sentences and prison terms. Conviction of domestic violence against minors is punishable by community service or imprisonment for one to three years, and conviction for trafficking minors is punishable by eight to 20 years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstance. The Public Defender’s Office reported that general education institutions and preschools lacked qualified professionals who could detect and respond to signs of violence against children in a timely manner.
Authorities referred children who suffered abuse to the relevant community and government services in coordination with stakeholders, including police, schools, and social service agencies.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18. Conviction for forced marriage of an individual younger than 18 is punishable by two to four years’ imprisonment. The Public Defender’s Office reported the practice of early marriage and engagement remained a problem. Law enforcement agencies, social services, and secondary education institutions did not coordinate their efforts to deal with the problem.
Home-based learning due to COVID-19 made it more difficult for social workers to detect cases of child marriage and intervene promptly.
The Public Defender’s Office noted in its 2020 report that the social service agency did not have guidelines for managing child marriage cases and that its response to child marriages was often superficial and fragmented.
Reports of child marriages continued throughout the year. The public defender’s annual report for 2020 indicated that child marriages occurred more frequently among certain ethnic and religious groups. Authorities had difficulty providing timely and effective responses to unlawful imprisonment and forced marriage. The public defender reported that inadequate official response to such incidents encouraged potential offenders, who believed they would not be held responsible.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction for commercial sexual exploitation of children or possession of child pornography is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Authorities enforced the law. Street children and children living in orphanages were reportedly particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The law considers sexual intercourse with a juvenile as rape, provided it is committed by use of force, threat of use of force, or with a victim of a “helpless condition.” If these elements are not present, sexual intercourse with a minor can be charged as a crime of “penetration of a sexual nature into the body of a person younger than 16 years of age,” which carries a lower sentence. The penalty for conviction for rape is from six years to life imprisonment, depending on circumstances; the government generally enforced the law. Conviction of other sexual crimes carried increased levels of punishment if the victim was a juvenile.
Displaced Children: The Public Defender’s Office reported a lack of information regarding street children and noted the inadequacy of resources devoted to them. It was unclear how many children were geographically displaced, and a significant portion belonged to families that migrated seasonally to Georgia from Azerbaijan. In its annual report for 2020, the Public Defender’s Office reported that despite improvement in identifying and establishing contact with children living in the streets, the identification process remained inadequate.
The Public Defender’s Office 2021 report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child described children living and working on the street as a vulnerable social group that faced a high risk of labor exploitation. They lacked protections from forced labor and had limited access to health care and education. The government’s detection, outreach, and actions to protect and assist street children were limited, and access to services for them and their families remained inadequate.
Due to their homelessness and lack of sanitation, street children had a higher risk of COVID-19 infection. The Public Defender’s Office reported that, based on information from the Agency for State Care, a quarantine area for children was opened in Tbilisi in 2020. If necessary, mobile groups working under a state subprogram placed street children in the quarantine area as well. On April 1, the Public Defender’s Office reported that in 2020, the psychosocial needs of homeless children were not being properly met in the quarantine area.
The population of street children consisted of ethnic Georgians, members of two Romani language groups, Kurds from Azerbaijan, children of Armenian refugees, and children of IDPs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Police and labor inspectors began to take enforcement action, but more work was needed to protect children from being trafficked or exploited through illicit work and forced labor.
While some shelters existed, the full spectrum of services needed did not exist outside of Tbilisi.
Institutionalized Children: The government continued replacing large-scale orphanages with alternative arrangements. The government provided grants for higher education for institutionalized and foster-care children, including full coverage of tuition and a stipend, and provided emergency assistance to foster families.
The government continued to transfer children, including those with disabilities, who were institutionalized in large-scale orphanages to family and family-type services (small group homes for specialized care). The government increased the pool of foster parents and specialized foster parents available to receive children from orphanages and avoid an inflow of new cases to orphanages.
In June the Public Defender’s Office reported that protection of minors in state care and in some orphanages operated by the Georgian Orthodox Church remained a problem. The protection of children in state care from violence, care for their mental health, protection of right to education, preparation for independent life, improvement of care-taking personnel, and allocation of sufficient human and financial resources posed a problem. Teachers in small family-type homes as well as foster parents lacked the knowledge and skills to handle children with behavioral problems or child victims of violence. This resulted in children being moved between different types of care, creating additional stress and worsening their situation. Minors with disabilities presented a particular problem because assistance programs were not oriented to meeting their individual needs for protection, preparation for independent living, and education. The practice of placing children with behavioral or mental-health problems together was also problematic and aggravated their situation.
In May the Public Defender’s Office reported that Ninotsminda Orphanage’s principal, Bishop Spiridon, barred its representatives from monitoring the orphanage, which was operated by the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Public Defender’s Office has a constitutional right to enter institutions to conduct monitoring. The Public Defender’s Office reported there were allegations of physical and psychological abuse of children at the orphanage. Bishop Spiridon responded that he would never allow the office, which he claimed was propagating same-sex marriage, inside the institution. On June 2, the Public Defender’s Office cited Ministry of Internal Affairs’ reports that four criminal cases concerning the orphanage had been opened since 2016. Three of the cases involved allegations of violence against minors and one the alleged rape of a minor. The bishop’s refusal to allow the office to enter the orphanage prompted the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to call on authorities to ensure monitoring occurred.
On June 5, the Tbilisi City Court ruled in favor of the NGO Partnership for Human Rights that children with disabilities should be removed from the Ninotsminda Orphanage. The court stated that the State Care Agency, which is responsible for the protection of children in foster facilities, could apply to the court to extend the removal order to other children. The Georgian Orthodox Church announced its intention to appeal the court ruling on June 6. On June 13, the church replaced Bishop Spiridon with Archbishop Iakob as principal of the orphanage, and on June 17, Archbishop Iakob agreed to allow Public Defender Nino Lomjaria to visit. On June 28, the public defender visited the orphanage and said that the Archbishop Iakob agreed to work with the Public Defender’s Office. Archbishop Iakob also dismissed 20 orphanage employees. As of November an investigation into alleged abuse was underway.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Observers estimated the Jewish community to be no more than 6,000 persons.
As of November an appeals court decision was pending regarding whether the 2018 killing in Tbilisi of human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who was of Jewish and Yezidi origin, constituted a hate crime. Human rights NGOs alleged the two men responsible for the killing were members of a neo-Nazi group, and a key witness at the trial testified that Safarov was killed because he was Jewish. In 2019 the Tbilisi City Court convicted the two men and imposed a 15-year prison sentence for the killing of Safarov but dismissed qualifying the killing as a hate crime; the prosecutor appealed the court’s decision not to classify the killing as a hate crime.
On August 21, former Georgian Orthodox priest Basil Kobakhidze posted a critical statement on his Facebook page regarding a recording of Georgian Orthodox priest Archil Mindiashvili who made anti-Semitic statements about the COVID-19 vaccine and stated he would not be vaccinated.
On January 4, Archpriest Ilia Karkadze asserted that Jewish persons in the financial industry controlled Russia and Georgia today, conquering them with “offshore money.”
In response to Karkadze’s statement, the Tolerance and Diversity Institute and the Public Defender’s Office issued statements warning of the rise in anti-Semitism that statements like these could cause. The Georgian Orthodox Church’s metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli issued a statement on Karkadze’s remarks that said, “[the remarks] represent completely groundless accusations against the Jewish people or its individual representatives. It is not based on the teachings of the Church and is inspired with the anti-Semitic pathos.”
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, transportation, access to health care, the judicial system and right to a fair trial, and the provision of other government or private-sector services, the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities continued to encounter barriers to participating fully in public life. Many families with children with disabilities considered themselves stigmatized and kept their children from public view. The office reported that violence, especially sexual violence, was a significant problem for persons with disabilities. Discrimination in employment was also a problem. A new law on the rights of persons with disabilities came into force on January 1.
The country operated several orphanages for children with disabilities as well as specialized family-type services and foster parenting. The government continued operations of state-run institutions for adults with disabilities. Despite some improvements in these institutions, they lacked infrastructure, trained staff, psychosocial services, and opportunities for patients to have contact with the outside world and families. There was no plan for replacing the institutions with community-based services and other alternatives.
The Public Defender’s Office report for 2020 noted that the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the rights of persons with disabilities, as remote work and distance learning were not viable for many such persons. In addition, many remote services were ineffective because they could not ensure proper provision of services to individuals.
The law provides principles to guide the government’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and clarifies the government’s roles and responsibilities to ensure persons with disabilities fully and effectively participate in society. The law mandates all agencies employ the principles of universal design, reasonable accommodation, and independent living; recognizes Georgian sign language as an official language for communication and education of deaf and hearing-impaired persons; authorizes special plaintiff organizations to represent persons with disabilities in court; requires municipalities to provide services to support independent living for persons with disabilities; and mandates that relevant state agencies ensure all new and old buildings and services will be accessible for persons with disabilities within 15 years. The law requires the education system to elevate the status of special education teachers and introduce social workers at schools to work on the inclusion of children with disabilities.
Approximately 1,250 persons with disabilities were registered on the Worknet public employment portal in 2020-21, leading to 37 persons with disabilities being hired in 2020 and 63 in 2021. The Labor, Health, and Social Affairs’ Employment Support Agency, under the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, cooperated with a range of large companies to find employment for persons registered in the portal.
Provisions of the law that disqualify a person with disabilities working in the public sector from receiving state disability assistance were seen as a disincentive to such work, although in January the government passed legislation that would maintain social benefits for one year in cases in which a person with disabilities found public-sector employment. The Public Defender’s Office reported persons with disabilities employed in the public sector, unlike those in the private sector, cannot receive social benefits (except those with severe disabilities or visual impairments).
In a case litigated by the NGO Partnership for Human Rights, the court ordered state-funded 12-hour personal assistance for a child with severe disabilities who had to be institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital for one month since no community-based care options were available to him. As a result of the decision, in December 2020 the government approved the 2021 State Program of Social Rehabilitation, which provides that the needs for individual home-care service for children with disabilities would be identified by a multidisciplinary team and children would be able to receive personal assistant services at government expense.
Stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS were major barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention and service utilization. NGOs reported that social stigma caused individuals to avoid testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Some health-care providers, particularly dentists, refused to provide services to HIV-positive persons. Individuals often concealed their HIV/AIDS status from employers due to fear of losing their jobs.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law makes acting on the basis of prejudice because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor for all crimes. According to NGOs, however, the government rarely enforced the law. The Human Rights Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs trained officers on hate crimes.
The Public Defender’s Office reported LGBTQI+ individuals continued to experience systemic violence, oppression, abuse, intolerance, and discrimination. LGBTQI+ rights organizations reported several instances of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals during the year. Authorities opened investigations into several of the cases. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, in the first nine months of the year criminal prosecutions were initiated against 64 persons on the basis of intolerance on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The office reported that violence against LGBTQI+ individuals, whether in the family or in public spaces, was a serious problem and that the government’s actions were insufficient to respond to this challenge.
LGBTQI+ organizations, NGOs, and the Public Defender’s Office reported the government’s ineffective antidiscrimination policy reduced the LGBTQI+ community’s trust in state institutions, and they pointed to homophobic statements by politicians and public officials as furthering hatred and intolerance against the community. For example on July 5, regarding the planned Tbilisi Pride march, Prime Minister Garibashvili stated “the march scheduled today carries risks of civic confrontation because the march is unacceptable by the vast majority of the country’s population. That is why I believe that the conduct of the march on Rustaveli Avenue is not reasonable.” He added separately, “The opposition headed by Saakashvili is behind the pride march, which is aimed at provoking civil confrontation and turmoil.”
During the year there was a rise in attacks against LGBTQI+ persons and those perceived to be associated with the LGBTQI+ community, most notably against transgender women. Violent protests and riots during Tbilisi Pride culminated in homophobic and anti-Western riots on July 5 (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association). Individual attacks were also on the rise. For example on April 30, a 17-year-old transgender girl was attacked by two unknown suspects who beat her, smashed her cell phone, and used transphobic rhetoric. On May 1, two individuals were charged for this crime and were released by the court on relatively low bail given the nature of the violent crime. On June 7, the case was referred for trial to the Tbilisi City Court; as of year’s end, the trial continued.
On October 31, a man entered a massage parlor in Tbilisi and attacked two transgender women with a knife, killing one and wounding another. The suspect was arrested and faced a charge of premeditated murder. The Prosecutor General’s Office said the suspect “wanted to kill transgender people on the grounds of intolerance of gender identity.” As of year’s end, the case was still pending.
On April 20, a man attacked a lesbian couple in front of their child outside their home in Tbilisi. The attacker, a neighbor, insulted them and demanded they move out of the building. The attacker then spat on them, continued with homophobic insults, and threatened the couple with a knife. Police arrested the man, who was released on bail on April 23 and was allowed to return to their shared apartment building. LGBTQI+ activists cited the case as an example of the government not taking LGBTQI+ hate crimes seriously. In June the case was referred for trial to Tbilisi City Court; as of year’s end, the trial continued.
The Public Defender’s Office received 10 complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and seven cases based on gender identity. Of these cases, 16 were being investigated by the Internal Affairs Ministry. In one of the cases, the claimant alleged refusal of service based on homophobic motives. On July 6, a private company refused to prepare a seal for the organization, The Network of a European Person’s Rights. The claimant also said that an employee of the company, who was preparing the mold of the seal, used degrading and insulting language towards the LGBTQI+ community. When the claimant told the employee the name of the organization, the latter started insulting the Tbilisi Pride event, praising Levan Vasadze – a businessman and far-right political leader – and speaking about the July 5 violence. The Public Defender’s Office was reviewing the case.
In a high profile case, in 2019 the Ministry of Internal Affairs charged one person for making death threats based on sexual orientation after he threatened an individual who made public statements against homophobia on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. In July the case was referred for trial to Batumi City Court. As of December the trial had not commenced.
The law requires gender confirmation surgery for legal gender-identity change and does not provide options for transgender individuals who do not wish to undergo confirmation surgery to change their gender identity.