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Council of Europe ‘concerned’ over Georgia’s queer rights record

26 September 2019
The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. Official picture.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has expressed ‘concern’ over Georgia’s failure to uphold the rights of queer people, including the lack of protection for this year’s aborted Tbilisi Pride march.

The committee made the comments while considering Georgia’s progress in implementing the 2015 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling on the case of Identoba v Georgia.

The court ruled in favour of queer rights group Identoba, who sued the Georgian Government for its failure to provide adequate protection against homophobic attacks on 17 May — International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — in 2012.

The ruling obliged Georgia to pay 13 applicants who participated in the rally between €2,000–€4,000, as well as €1,500 to Identoba, as well as to take several measures to protect minority groups.

The committee noted ‘with concern […] there still persist a number of serious, systemic shortcomings in law and practice concerning discrimination and hate crime, notably against LGBTI persons’

They also expressed concern ‘the incidents surrounding attempts to hold an LGTBI pride march in Tbilisi in June 2019, including threats against would-be marchers, the Public Defender and her deputies, as well as the reported inability of law enforcement bodies to protect participants from violent homophobic groups’.

In July 2019, queer rights activists abandoned plans to hold a queer pride parade after the government refused to provide police protection for the march. A small number of activists instead held a short pride demonstration outside the Interior Ministry. 

That same day, ultra-conservative protesters who had been roaming the streets in search of Pride supporters faced off with anti-Putin protesters at the Georgian parliament.

[Read more about Tbilisi Pride on OC Media:  Ultraconservative and anti-Putin protesters face off as queer activists hold impromptu pride]

The committee also ‘encouraged the authorities […] to establish a specialised investigative unit within the police in order to carry out effective investigations into hate crimes’.

George Stafford the co-director of the European Implementation Network, a Strasbourg-based NGO lobbying for the effective implementation of ECHR judgements, said that while CoE decisions were ‘always extremely diplomatic’, this one was notable in several ways.

‘It is notable that the Committee of Ministers specifically identified threats on a certain day to certain people. That is unusual’, Stafford told OC Media.

‘It is notable that they urged the authorities to take specific measures: i.e. treat hate crimes [as crimes] with aggravated circumstances and establish a specific [police] unit.’

He said that this was the Council of Europe’s way of telling Georgia it needed to ‘hurry up and solve this problem: starting with X and Y’.

He also noted that the council had recognised the Georgian government’s reports of progress being made on this issue.

[Read more about public attitudes towards queer people in Georgia: More young Georgians say queer rights are important than not, poll finds]

The 2015 ruling

In their 2015 ruling, the ECHR found violations of several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment and freedom of assembly and association, both in conjunction with the prohibition on discrimination. 

In 2012, Identoba notified the authorities about two weeks in advance of their intention to hold a peaceful march in Tbilisi and requested that the authorities provide sufficient protection against possible violence. 

The demonstration was attended by approximately 30 people. During the event, queer activists were threatened by counter-demonstrators, including clergy from the Union of Orthodox Parents, a group of conservative Orthodox priests, who outnumbered them. 

Counter-demonstrators shouted insults at the marchers, blocked their passage and encircled them. Eventually, counter-demonstrators attacked several of the applicants physically, leaving at least three of them with injuries including bruises, a closed head trauma, and contusions. 

According to the applicants, the police remained passive in the face of the violence. In particular, several police officers at the scene, when asked for help by activists, allegedly replied that they were not part of the police patrol and it was not their duty to intervene. 

Four of the applicants were briefly detained and were driven around in a police car. They said they were told that these measures were taken to protect them from the counter-demonstrators.

Following the events, Identoba requested that criminal investigations be launched into the attacks against them. They also demanded an investigation of police officers who failed to protect them from the attack. 

As a result, two perpetrators were fined ₾100 ($34) each, while no investigation was launched into the police’s inaction. 

The ECHR noted in its ruling that ‘Georgian criminal law provided that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity should be treated as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of an offence’ and that ‘it would have been essential for the authorities to conduct the investigation in that specific context, which they had failed to do’.

In its ruling, the court considered an assessment of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and encouraged ‘increased efforts to enhance tolerance and non-discrimination among the majority population’.

The commissioner emphasised the importance for the authorities, public actors, and community leaders to send an unambiguous message in favour of human rights and tolerance, and against violence, hate speech, and discrimination. 

‘It should be made clear that violence against LGBTI persons is unacceptable and will not be tolerated’, the ECHR ruling quoted the Commissioner as saying.

It also stated that ‘hate crimes should be effectively investigated and qualified as such by law enforcement bodies. The bias motive should be taken into account as an aggravating circumstance, as already provided for by national legislation, and perpetrators should receive punishment commensurate to the gravity of the offence’.

The Government’s response

In 2018, the Georgian Government presented an action report to the CoE Committee of Ministers in which they said that the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office had launched an investigation into the case. 

They said they had established that the applicants were recognised as victims due to the unlawful interference, using violence, to their right to hold or participate in an assembly or demonstration. It also noted that the investigation had found that the perpetrators had discriminatory motives for doing so. 

However, they said they could not bring charges in the case ‘due to the period of limitation of the crime’.

They said that had their current case been launched in 2012, charges would have been brought.

They said that the investigation following the ECHR judgement was comprehensive and asked the committee to close supervision of the Identoba v Georgia case.

The Human Rights Education and monitoring centre (EMC), a Georgia-based rights group responded critically to the Georgian Government’s demand to cease monitoring the implementation of the case. 

They positively assessed the government’s efforts to create anti-discriminatory legislation and efforts against hate-crimes, however, they noted that violations of queer people’s rights remained a problem. 

They also accused the authorities of not properly investigating homophobic and transphobic crimes committed by law enforcement officials, which they said encouraged impunity.

How has May 17 changed since 2012?

Following the violence in 2012, on May 17 2013, a small group of around 50 queer activists were exposed to unprecedented violence in Tbilisi as thousands of counter-demonstrators led by Georgian Orthodox priests attacked them. 

Counter-demonstrators carried posters with homophobic messages such as: ‘We don’t need Sodom and Gomorrah in Georgia’.

The crowds, some carrying nettles to beat queer rights activists, broke through police lines to attack the activists. Police were forced to evacuate the small number of activists from the city centre to avoid further violence.

Four people, including a priest, were charged with hindering people from exercising their right of assembly with threats of violence or power abuse. However, two years later, a court found them not guilty. 

The following year, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II announced 17 May would be celebrated as ‘Family Purity Day’. Since then, the Church has marked the day annually with mass parades with parishioners carrying large icons through the streets. 

Queer rights activists have since struggled to hold peaceful anti-homophobia demonstrations due to threats of violence. 

Homophobic violence in Georgia

In 2017, the Prosecutor’s Office examined 86 alleged hate crimes, 12 of which were based on sexual orientation and 37 on gender identity.

The Public Defender’s 2018 report said violence against queer people, whether in the family or in public spaces, is a serious problem, and that the government has been unable to respond to this challenge.

The report said the Public Defender received numerous complaints regarding homophobic attitudes from law enforcement officials.

‘In some cases, complainants withdrew cases and refused to cooperate with the general inspection or the Prosecutor’s Office because they didn’t believe an investigation into their cases would be timely’, the report reads.

The report said transgender women in particular often appeal to the Public Defender’s Office about the violence they face.

‘Unfortunately, law enforcement officials don’t have an efficient strategy against hate-motivated violence. They react to individual cases and don’t take action against the systematic problem’, the report reads.

[Read more about how officials react to homophobia, on OC Media: Georgian PM says homophobia is ‘exaggerated’ following last week’s homophobic siege’]

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