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Georgia has filed a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for ‘wide-scale practices of harassment, detention, assault and murder on the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia’. While Georgia argued that such practices had ‘intensified since the 2008 war’ reaching a ‘critical point’ with the February killing of Archil Tatunashvili, South Ossetian officials dismissed the move as ‘an absurd propaganda action’.
On Wednesday, Georgia’s Justice Ministry issued a statement saying they were requesting the court rule that Russia was responsible for multiple violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life, prohibition of torture, and right to liberty and security.
The statement said these violations were a result of the ‘ongoing occupation, the construction of barbed wire fences [around South Ossetia], and a purposeful campaign directed against Georgian citizens’.
The statement said these violations were intended to be discriminatory, aimed at harassing and oppressing ethnic Georgians in order to obstruct the return of ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia’s application drew particular attention to the killings of Archil Tatunasvhili, Giga Otkhozoria, and Davit Basharuli. It argued that Georgia had made every effort to fulfil its procedural obligations, but despite these efforts, the Prosecutor’s Office had been prevented from fully establishing the circumstances surrounding their deaths or holding the perpetrators accountable, ‘due to the fact that the crimes [were] committed on the Georgian territory occupied by Russia’.
It noted that Georgian investigations into their deaths were hampered by an inability to examine the crime scenes and in Tatunashvili’s case, the refusal of the South Ossetian authorities to hand over his internal organs, mobile phone, and clothes.
‘The witnesses, who live in the occupied region and possess important information for the cases, cannot be interviewed. The persons charged with crimes cannot be detained, as they reside in the occupied territories. Of note, the investigation is impeded both by the Russian Federation and the de facto organs under its control, who try to cover up the crimes, obstruct justice, and mislead the investigation by shielding the perpetrators of the crimes; forging the forensic medical examiner's report; creating alternative versions of events, and hindering the Georgian investigative authorities’, the statement said.
On Thursday, South Ossetia’s presidential envoy for post-conflict settlement, Murat Dzhioyev, said the move ‘once again shows [Georgia’s] inability and stubborn refusal to adequately perceive the geopolitical realities that have long existed in the region’.
According to South Ossetian news agency RES, Dzhioyev accused Georgia of inventing stories of human rights violations for foreign officials. He reportedly called Georgia an aggressor ‘that for about 20 years has waged a permanent war against South Ossetia’, adding that Georgia ‘launched a war’ against them in 2008.
Speaking of Tatunashvili’s death, Dzhioyev denied that he was murdered and said ‘it’s simply inhumane that certain forces in Georgia make a political business out of a person’s death and the grief of their relatives’.
The Abkhazian Government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia and the ECHR
According to Georgia’s Justice Ministry, Georgia has previously submitted two inter-state applications against Russia at the ECHR.
In the first judgment, concerning the deportation of Georgian citizens from Russia, the court ruled in their favour. In the second dispute, over ‘war crimes’ committed during the 2008 War, the Ministry of Justice said it had successfully argued its case at the final hearing on 23 May and was awaiting the final judgment.
However, Russia has suggested it may pull out of the court. In May, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted government sources as saying the reason for the possible withdrawal was because a number of the court’s judgements ran counter to Russia’s interests.
‘The court refuses to take into account the peculiarities of the Russian legal system and the norms of international law, and often resorts to the practice of double standards’, the source said.
In 2015, Russia adopted a law allowing it to overrule the ECHR’s judgements to ‘protect the interests of Russia’. The law allows Russian courts to overrule the ECHR’s decisions if they deem them unconstitutional. The legal changes came after the ECHR ruled against Russia's Federal Security Service over spying.
Arrests of Georgian nationals
According to the two latest reports by the State Security Service of Georgia, between 2016 and 2017, 260 Georgians were arrested by South Ossetians and 245 by Abkhazians for ‘illegally crossing the border’.
According to data acquired by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) from the Interior Ministry, in 2009–2015 ‘a total of 2117 Georgian citizens [were] illegally detained by the occupation forces, […]. From the total amount, 1416 [were] detained near Abkhazia, and 701 at [the] Tskhinvali occupation line’.
Tatunashvili sustained ‘over 100 injuries before dying’
A Georgian autopsy on the remains of Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian citizen who died in South Ossetian custody in February, said he suffered over 100 separate injuries before dying. South Ossetia claimed Tatunashvili, whose remains were transferred to Tbilisi almost three months ago, died after falling down a flight of stairs while trying to escape.
According to the preliminary forensic medical examination report produced by Georgia’s Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau, Tatunashvili’s injuries included wounds, fractures, bruises, haemorrhages, and incisions made while he was still alive.
‘[The autopsy] makes it clear that he was subjected to torture and inhuman treatment’, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality told reporters.
The South Ossetian security services claimed in March that he had died after falling from the stairs while trying to escape. South Ossetian authorities refused to release Tatunashvili’s body before announcing the results of a forensic examination conducted on tissue samples sent to Moscow. The Russian autopsy report, handed over together with the remains, named acute heart failure as the cause of Tatunashvili’s death.
Georgian authorities and Tatunashvili’s family have continued to demand the transfer of Tatunashvili’s internal organs, which South Ossetia claims were removed for forensic purposes.
According to the Georgian authorities, a full autopsy report determining the cause of death has yet to be completed. The Tbilisi-based Rehabilitation Centre for the Victims of Torture — Empathy is also expected to produce an independent autopsy report.
South Ossetia accused the Georgian Government of using Tatunashvili’s death for its own ‘populist interests’ to gain ‘political dividends’, on the background of an ‘unstable political situation’.
Abkhazia releases man accused of Otkhozoria’s death
On 31 May, the Georgian State Security Service reported that Abkhazia had dropped criminal proceedings against Abkhazian border guard Rashid Kandzhi-Ogly, who they accused of killing Giga Otkhozoria at a checkpoint between Abkhazia and Tbilisi-controlled territory.
Kandzhi-Ogly was accused of murdering Otkhozoria, an ethnic Georgian man from Abkhazia’s eastern Gali (Gal) District, at a checkpoint near the village of Khurcha on 19 May 2016, after a conflict reportedly broke out between Otkhozoria and the Abkhazian guards. According to Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Kandzhi-Ogly shot dead Otkhozoria at point blank.
The Abkhazian and Russian parties walked out of latest Abkhazia IPRM discussion on 27 June after Georgia’s representatives refused to drop the issue of Otkhozoria’s murder from the agenda. Georgia’s State Security Service again raised the issue of the criminal responsibility of Kandzhi-Ogly, who was sentenced by the Kutaisi Court of Appeals to 14 years in prison in absentia. On 21 April, the Abkhazian authorities announced they had dropped criminal proceedings against Kandzhi-Ogly, citing a lack of evidence provided by the Georgian side.
The Otkhozoria–Tatunashvili list
In March 2018 Georgia’s parliament adopted a resolution calling for those committing human rights violations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be punished. The resolution ordered the cabinet to create a list of people accused or convicted of ‘murder, kidnapping, torture and inhumane treatment, and serious damage to the health of Georgian citizens on the occupied territories’. It also called for sanctions against those covering up such crimes.
The Russian and South Ossetian authorities slammed Georgia for the list. On 2 July, the authorities in South Ossetia labelled it ‘cynical’ and ‘irresponsible’, dubbing it ‘another indicator’ of Tbilisi’s ‘lack of desire to face its own mistakes and normalise relations’ with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The list includes those accused or convicted in absentia for ‘the murder, kidnapping, torture, and inhumane treatment’ of Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and for the cover-up of these crimes, since 1991.
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.