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Abkhazian HR Commissioner condemns torture, ethnic discrimination, and domestic violence

30 June 2020
Asida Shakryl addressing parliament. Image via Abaza TV.

Abkhazia’s Human Rights Commissioner has delivered a scathing report detailing allegations of torture, illegal detention, and ethnic discrimination by the authorities. 

Commissioner Asida Shakryl presented the report on human rights in Abkhazia in 2018–2019 to lawmakers in Sukhumi (Sukhum) on Monday.

The 140-page report also addressed women’s rights in Abkhazia, documenting problems with honour killing and domestic violence as well as a total ban on abortion.

Speaking before parliament, Shakryl said that 152 people had appealed to her office since March 2018. Fifteen of these complaints were related to torture, she said. 

The report detailed cases in which people were subjected to torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment in offices of the Interior Ministry, while in pre-trial detention, and while serving sentences.

The report also criticised policies aimed at ethnic-Georgians in Abkhazia, including difficulties in obtaining official documents.

The report said that Abkhazia had witnessed a gradual rise in gender-based killings of women in recent years and that such cases were not properly investigated by the authorities.

It said the authorities should develop a system to prevent gender-based violence in line with the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adding that this should include statistical data collection and amendments to the criminal code. 

Shakryl said her office had already prepared a draft law against domestic violence. 

She also said that a total ban on abortions in Abkhazia — neglecting even cases of incest, rape, or a high risk to a woman’s life — was discriminatory and encouraged unsafe and illegal abortions.  

She called on policymakers to revise the ban to allow termination of pregnancy on medical grounds. 

In her report, Shakryl also took aim at international organisations for ‘neglecting’ the human rights of Abkhazians.

She accused them of paying ‘all the attention to one category of victims [of the 1992–1993 conflict] — the rights of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia and of ethnic Georgians who returned to the Gal Region of Abkhazia in 1993’.

She said that a lack of international recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state meant Abkhazians did not enjoy the right to freedom of movement.

She said that this ‘selectiveness’ had led to distrust towards international rights institutions among Abkhazians.

‘Obsolete and dangerous stereotypes about human rights’

While addressing parliament on Monday, Shakryl invoked the case of Anzor Tarba, a suspect who she said had ‘died of torture’ while detained in an Internal Affairs building in Sukhumi last July. 

Tarba was apprehended by police on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping of Omar Mertskhulava, a man from the village of Gumista, in 2019. 

In other cases, beatings by police left victims with life-altering physical disabilities and that there were instances in which Abkhazian courts ignored allegations of torture by detainees, Shakryl said.

She argued that there was a need to include and define ‘torture’ as a separate clause in the Abkhazian Criminal Code. 

The Human Rights Commissioner also told lawmakers that her office had received reports of individuals being detained by police, sometimes for several days, without being formally processed and with no access to a lawyer. Family members were kept in the dark about the fate of their relatives during such cases, she said.

In another case last November, the report said that the Chief of Criminal Investigations at the Ministry of Internal Affairs branch in Sukhumi had ‘informed the Commissioner that he deemed this form of detention of suspects appropriate in order to effectively investigate and solve the crime’.

Shakryl also complained that some state agencies ignored requests for information from her office for months, or replied to them ‘without substance’, obstructing and delaying her office in following up on complaints from members of the public.

Shakryl cited the Head of the Gulripsh Regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs as stating that he did not have to know or be guided by either the law or international standards as Abkhazia was not internationally recognised.

The Human Rights Commissioner described the Prosecutor’s Office, police departments, court bailiffs, and detention centres as the agencies ‘least disposed’ to cooperate with her office. 

She said that the State Security Service was ‘the most closed’ institution, something that she said reflected the agency’s ‘obsolete and dangerous stereotypes about human rights’. 

Discrimination against residents of Gali

The report outlined several violations of human rights in the Gali (Gal) District of Abkhazia the territory’s easternmost region that is predominantly populated by ethnic-Georgians.

These included a ban in place since August 2018 on students and teachers in Gali District participating in cultural and educational events outside the region without permission from the local authorities. The Commissioner said this was ‘unlawful’ and contradicted their rights to free movement and education.

Shakryl also highlighted obstacles residents of Gali faced in obtaining new Abkhazian passports. 

A 2005 law stripped many residents of Abkhazia of citizenship granted under the previous law adopted in 1993. 

Ethnic Georgians faced additional challenges after a 2013 amendment to the law banned dual citizenship except with Russia. Many in Gali rely on Georgian citizenship for their pensions.

[Read more on OC Media: Equal and more equal: Abkhazia’s passport policy].

'Citizenship is a permanent connection of an individual with the state which cannot be terminated in such a manner', the Commissioner's report noted. 

It said this was a violation of Article 27 of the Constitution of Abkhazia which states that ‘no citizen of the Republic of Abkhazia shall be deprived of their citizenship, expelled from the country, or extradited to another state’. 

Shakryl called on Abkhazian lawmakers to revisit the ‘discriminatory’ citizenship law and to retroactively examine applicants residence history. 

The Human Rights Commissioner also recommended a more gradual move to Russian as the language of instruction in schools in Gal, as local teachers did not know the language well enough. 

She said that the ‘rushed process’ should not deprive ethnic Georgians of a decent education in Georgian.

The report separately highlighted that existing residence and citizenship regulations, including obstacles for changing surnames, also hindered 'descendants of Abkhaz' living in Gali to return their ‘ethnic belonging’.

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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