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Georgia: Groups Urge U.S. To Tie Aid To Human Rights Progress

As Georgia's new head of state Mikheil Saakashvili continues his visit to the United States, international civic campaigners say they are concerned by recent human rights developments in the South Caucasus nation. They say Washington should ensure Saakashvili takes concrete steps to improve basic freedoms before providing any more financial aid.

Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a report released yesterday, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited its concerns about recent violations of civil rights in Georgia.

The group urged the White House to ensure that Georgia's new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, "delivers on human rights and real reform." HRW also called on U.S. President George W. Bush to "tell Saakashvili continued aid to Georgia will depend on respect for human rights."

"Washington needs to pay attention now, while the new leadership in Tbilisi is finding its way, to ensure that it gets on the right path to democracy -- and stays there."
The United States had already pledged $164 million in aid to Tbilisi for this fiscal year. It recently allocated an additional $21 million in aid to help support the new government through its transition period. And Georgian media yesterday cited Saakashvili as saying he will lobby for still more U.S. aid during his Washington visit this week. He said extra assistance was needed to support Georgia's security and defense needs.

Washington has engaged in military cooperation with Georgia for the past two years, helping train four small army units in antiterror techniques. Addressing Georgian reporters after talks with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on 23 February, Saakashvili said Washington would help train an additional 5,000 to 10,000 servicemen in a new program due to begin in April. The aid is part of the U.S.-led drive against terror. It also aims at helping Georgia reform its military in a bid to facilitate its NATO membership bid.

Matilda Bogner, HRW's South Caucasus researcher, says the United States -- as Georgia's single-largest Western donor -- has considerable leverage in shaping Georgian policy. Speaking to RFE/RL from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, she said: "I think that if the U.S. wants to influence the policy of Mr. Saakashvili, [it does] have a lot of leverage. I think of all the international players in relations to Georgia, the U.S. is the most influential. I would like to see President Bush emphasizing that [the United States] wants to see the reforms that the Saakashvili government is doing to have human rights at the core, and that reforms that are carried out without human rights being respected are not likely to be successful and are not going to be supported by the U.S. government."

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. government to the HRW report.

The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of Saakashvili since the November ouster of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. It has praised his attempts to stem corruption and fight organized crime -- a program Saakashvili says is meant to revive economic indicators and eliminate poverty.

But there has been criticism at home and abroad for the Georgian leader's anticrime drive -- which includes the recent arrest, on tax-evasion and corruption charges, of dozens of private businessmen and former Shevardnadze aides, including his son-in-law, Giorgi Djokhtaberidze. Some have been remanded in custody for three months pending trial. Others have been released after paying heavy fines.

Georgian rights campaigners say they welcome efforts at curbing corruption. But they express concern over reports of violent police treatment of the detainees and other procedural violations. They have also criticized Saakashvili for proclaiming the guilt of those arrested before their court appearances, and for threatening to have security forces physically eliminate all inmates who seek to stir unrest in the country's prisons.

HRW notes Saakashvili's remarks in its 14-page report, which says, "In the context of Georgia's recent history of police abuse and lack of independent fair courts, [HRW] is concerned that these and other high-level statements on law enforcement encourage lower officials to violate basic rights."

The watchdog also expresses concerns over freedom of assembly and reported police violence against peaceful demonstrators since the new government took power. In the most recent incident, Interior Ministry troops fired into the air on 21 February to disperse a crowd of angry employees protesting the government closure of a printing house as part of an anticorruption investigation. No casualties were reported from the shots.

Georgian Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili defended the action, suggesting the protesters had narrowly escaped harsher sanctions. "Let me say that the primary task of the soldiers who are deployed at the site is to protect the Georgian state," he said. "In line with internal regulations of Interior Ministry troops, they had the right to fire warning shots. Naturally, should the protesters have refused to comply, the soldiers would have had the right to take other steps."

The printing house affected by the shutdown is part of the Omega Group, Georgia's largest cigarette retailer, which has been the target of an anticrime sweep. Police last week staged a raid at another Omega subsidiary, the Iberia television station, forcing it off the air for several hours.

Rights campaigners have called the raid part of a clampdown on nongovernmental media ahead of the 28 March parliamentary elections. Okruashvili denies the claims. Attempts to intimidate journalists and media organizations have also been reported in recent weeks.

Diana Orlova of the Vienna-based International Press Institute says there is no evidence Georgian authorities have sanctioned harassment of reporters. But she says many Georgians see such incidents as an attempt to muzzle the press ahead of the upcoming polls. "Obviously it is very good to have independent media before elections so that they could report on the elections to the people and the people knows what is happening in the country," she said. "So this is important that media are free of government pressure, or from pressure [exerted by] financial groups and this is something that needs to be ensured before the [28 March] parliamentary elections."

HRW's report also criticizes Saakashvili for pushing through constitutional changes without benefit of public debate. Earlier this month, the Georgian parliament hastily approved amendments that alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches by handing greater influence to the president and his prime minister. The fast-track approval violates a provision of the Georgian Constitution, which says amendments must be published one month ahead of parliamentary debate.

Matilda Bogner of HRW says she is concerned over the way the changes were made, and over the changes themselves. "In terms of content, the one point that definitely is of concern to [HRW] is the fact that the president now has been given the power to appoint and dismiss judges," she said. "In a country which has problems with the lack of independence of the judiciary [already], it is of concern that the president has been given increased powers in relation to controlling judges -- particularly in terms of dismissing judges -- which will make judges feel that they need to answer to the president, otherwise they can be dismissed."

Georgian political analyst Irakli Areshidze said on 21 February that Bush's failure to force Saakashvili to address his country's human rights issues "would be disastrous for both U.S. and Georgian interests." In a column for "The Washington Post," Areshidze wrote, "Washington needs to pay attention now, while the new leadership in Tbilisi is finding its way, to ensure that it gets on the right path to democracy -- and stays there."

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