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Ombudsman Slams 'Authoritarian Rule' In Georgia, Founds New Movement

  • Liz Fuller

Sozar Subari

Sozar Subari

Shortly after Mikheil Saakashvili's reelection in January for a second presidential term, Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, released an open letter to him warning that failure to combat elite corruption, police violence, and human rights abuses would inevitably lead Georgia to another crisis similar to the November 2007 crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi.

Subari -- who covered human rights and religious issues as a freelancer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service from 1999 to January 2003 -- was one of those beaten by riot police during that intervention, in the wake of which Saakashvili scheduled the pre-term presidential ballot. Last week, following the August war with Russia over South Ossetia, Subari issued an even more strongly worded statement enumerating the negative phenomena that characterize what he termed "authoritarian rule" in Georgia, and again warning, "This is not democracy; this is not the road to Europe."

Then on September 30, Subari announced the creation of a new umbrella Public Movement for Liberty and Justice, with which several prominent opposition politicians have already aligned.

Subari, who was born in 1964, studied history at Tbilisi State University and then entered a seminary, after which he served for several years as a lay brother. In 1995, he embarked on a career in journalism, focusing primarily on human rights, and in 2003 was named to head the Rule of Law project at the NGO Liberty Institute, with which Saakashvili maintained close ties prior to the November 2003 Rose Revolution.

Repeated Criticism

Subari was elected human rights ombudsman in September 2004 for a five-year term, and immediately set about investigating some of the more controversial court verdicts of preceding years. Since then, he has incurred repeated criticism both from opposition politicians and NGOs, who distrusted him for his former association with Saakashvili and rebuked him for not taking a tough enough stance on abuses, and from the pro-Saakashvili parliament majority, who accused him of abusing his authority.

In 2006, and again in 2007, the parliament first postponed indefinitely the mandatory debate on Subari's annual report and then declined to endorse it. In the report for 2006, which he finally delivered to parliament in May 2007, Subari said that in 2006 his office received a total of 3,500 complaints, twice as many as in 2005, Caucasus Press reported on May 26, 2007. Of that total, 2,100 concerned criminal cases. In an interview with the "Georgian Times" of April 13, 2007, Subari attributed that huge increase in the number of requests for help to the fact that "people trust us." At the same time, he admitted that his office does not have any executive powers, but can only make recommendations, which some government bodies -- he named the Defense Ministry in that context -- choose to ignore. In such cases, Subari's only recourse is to appeal to the parliament to pressure the agency in question, as he subsequently did in August 2007 when the Prosecutor-General's Office failed to comply with his request to reassess the legality of an arrest in July 2001.

Remaining silent and taking no action at this juncture is tantamount to a crime.
Two major incidents in early 2006 propelled Subari into a virtual collision course with the Georgian authorities. The first was the murder in January 2006 of banker Sandro Girgvliani, for which four mid-level Interior Ministry officials were subsequently tried and sentenced. Girgvliani was reportedly involved in an altercation in a restaurant with a group of people, including the wife of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, just hours before his badly beaten body was discovered on the outskirts of Tbilisi.

Speaking at a press conference in mid-March shortly after the initial arrests were announced, Subari said that in any truly democratic country the interior minister would have resigned. He went on to deplore the existence within that ministry of "a death squad...that stands above the law."

"The arrest of those people suspected of the killing did not dispel the doubts that arose after the killing," Subari said. "On the contrary, the feeling of frustration became even more acute and we are no closer to finding answers to key questions. Specifically: Are we building a state where human rights and human life are protected? Has the supreme value, human life, not become devalued? And are those values not endangered by the very agencies that are called upon to protect them? The only answer that we have received so far to those questions is that within the Interior Ministry there is a punitive group that stands above the law and that can liquidate any given individual if doing so is considered expedient."

Inhumane Treatment Of Prisoners

Then in June 2006, Subari released the findings of an investigation his office conducted into a riot in late March in a Tbilisi prison in which seven inmates died. Subari concluded that the prison authorities precipitated the riot by their brutal and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

In August 2007, Subari openly branded as unfounded and unjustified the seven-year prison sentence handed down to oppositionist Irakli Batiashvili on charges of providing "intellectual support" for an insurrection one year earlier by maverick local governor Emzar Kvitsiani. But Subari also intervened on behalf of a second former governor, Mikheil Kareli, who fell foul of the law in September 2007 after his close associate, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, accused Saakashvili during a live television interview of tolerating corruption within his entourage and of planning the assassination of political rivals.

In his April 2007 "Georgian Times" interview, Subari adduced the continued practice whereby government officials routinely dictate to judges what sentence to pass in order to support his argument that while democracy indeed existed in Georgia, it was "crippled." But since then, his evaluations of the political situation in Georgia have become progressively harsher.

In the wake of the November 2007 police crackdown, he affirmed in an interview with the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center, a Tbilisi-based NGO, that "November 7 destroyed the image of a democratic country and showed the international community the real face of Georgian democracy. We have the same kind of democracy as our Eastern neighbors. On the one hand, it is good that the international community has seen the reality existing in our country, but on the other hand it is not good for us because the image that we had before gave us the opportunity to integrate in Euro-Atlantic structures, while unfortunately after the events of November 7 our chances have decreased. We have gone backward."

Subari referred again in that interview to government interference in the work of the judiciary, and also to reprisals against the independent television station Imedi and Radio Hereti. Subari also demanded an explanation for the use by Georgian police of rubber bullets against the opposition protesters.

Trampling Of Individual Rights

In his January open letter to Saakashvili, Subari engaged in a more detailed, comprehensive, and even more negative evaluation of the situation in Georgia. He charged that the ruling elite routinely cites the imperative of building a strong state as justification for trampling on individual rights. He warned Saakashvili that a cosmetic cabinet reshuffle would simply preserve the existing monopoly on power by that elite which, he continued, includes "an influential group" of people who regard force as the most effective way of resolving problems.

Subari also expressed concern that some members of that elite have concluded that it is easier to rule the country if the population is reduced to a state of terror. He said there is a widespread conviction that anyone deemed disloyal to the regime risks dismissal from his job, and that the authorities resort to telephone tapping and other illegal means of surveillance. Subari criticizes as "a monster" and the "true ruler of the country" the Prosecutor-General's Office, which has since been merged with the Justice Ministry.

Subari's most recent diatribe, dated September 26, repeated and elaborated on his earlier criticisms, such as the lack of media freedom and an independent judiciary. But most crucially, he blamed the catastrophic humiliation Georgia suffered in its August war with Russia over South Ossetia on the authoritarian predilections and total disregard for human rights of the Georgian leadership. Subari went on to warn the population at large that the present leadership has brought Georgia to the edge of an abyss, and that without "dramatic change," catastrophe is inevitable.

"Remaining silent and taking no action at this juncture is tantamount to a crime," he declared. He appealed to the population to demonstrate a unity grounded in democratic principles and free will with the aim of replacing authoritarian rule with "genuine and irreversible democracy."

Finally, Subari appealed to the international community for support.

'Informal' Movement

Predictably, that public statement incurred swift condemnation from influential parliamentarian Givi Targamadze, a close Saakashvili associate, who accused Subari of acting "like an opposition politician," according to civil.ge on September 27. The fact that Subari stopped short of resigning his post could be interpreted as an implicit challenge to the pro-Saakashvili parliament majority to dismiss him.

On September 30, Subari announced the creation of a new Public Forum for Liberty and Justice, which is to hold its inaugural session on October 10. Subari said that movement is "informal" and does not seek to come to power, according to civil.ge. Instead, it will draft a plan of measures necessary "to save the country."

A number of prominent opposition politicians signed the movement's manifesto, which is based on Subari's open letter of September 26. They include former presidential challenger and United Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze; former Foreign Minister and Georgia's Path party leader Salome Zurabishvili; Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukava; and Eka Beselia, general secretary of the For A United Georgia party set up last year by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili.

Subari is, however, not the only influential political figure to distance himself from the Georgian leadership in the wake of the August disaster. On September 29, Georgian Ambassador to Russia Erosi Kitsmarishvili told the weekly newspaper "Kviris palitra" that he can no longer support the policies of the Georgian government. Kitsmarishvili added that the war over South Ossetia could have been avoided had the Georgian leadership heeded the advice of unnamed "senior foreign diplomatic representatives."
RFE/RL Caucasus Report


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