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Georgia: Tbilisi Lodges Suit Against Russia At Human Rights Court

A deported Georgian returns to Tbilisi (InterPressNews) April 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Georgian Justice Ministry has announced that it has filed a lawsuit against Moscow at the European Court of Human Rights over Russia's mass deportations of Georgians last autumn.

The deportation suit is the first involving any of the former Soviet states and could set a precedent for other CIS governments seeking redress from Moscow, or from each other.

The suits refers to the hundreds of Georgians in Russia who were rounded up in police raids, accused of immigration offenses, and loaded onto planes bound for Georgia.

The deportations were part of a series of punitive measures taken by Moscow after the arrest in Tbilisi of four Russian intelligence officers on spying charges.


But for the Georgians involved -- many of whom had been legally living and working in Russia for years -- the expulsion was abrupt, bewildering, and hateful.

One Georgian woman, who was living in Russia's Smolensk region, described her ordeal: "There was something wrong in our passports and we were immediately given 10 days to get out. They said, 'You're citizens of Georgia. Go to your Saakashvili,' and that's all. And so we bought a ticket to Baku and came here. It was hard. We'll be going to Tbilisi now."

According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, more than 4,600 Georgians were evicted from Russia during this period. At least two died in Russian custody while awaiting deportation.

One, a 58-year-old man, died of an asthma attack after failing to receive medical treatment in detention at a Moscow airport. More than a month later, a 51-year-old woman with a heart condition died in a detention center in the Russian capital where she had been held for six weeks.

'You're citizens of Georgia. Go to your Saakashvili'

The deaths and the deportations were criticized by Western governments and international rights organization.

Now, says Besarion Bokhashvili, the Georgian envoy to the European Court for Human Rights, his country is taking Russia to court over what it says were massive human rights violations during the deportations.

"The interstate application is mainly based on those thousands [of deportations] and numerous violations of human rights during the deportation process, which were carried out last autumn by the Russian authorities," Bokhashvili says.

Settling Scores

In Russia, the Foreign Ministry branded the lawsuit as a "propagandist fuss" and warned the case was "bad news" for fragile ties between Georgia and Russia.

But Moscow, which has been facing -- and often losing -- a growing number of human rights cases brought by civilians in the Strasbourg court, the prospect of losing the first-ever interstate case between two post-Soviet states cannot be appealing.

Governments rarely chose to settle scores through the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights (official photo)

The court was created to systematize the way human rights complaints are brought against the 46 Council of Europe member states, all of which are party to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the council in 1950.

While tens of thousands of people file complaints against their countries with the court every year, the court has received only two dozen intergovernment lawsuit applications since its creation in 1959. Only three of these applications have resulted in verdicts.

Rodrick Liddell, a spokesman from the European Court of Human Rights, explains why states are so reluctant to turn to the court.

"They [interstate cases] are a rather rare phenomenon. It's not something that is entered into lightly, to bring an application against a fellow member state of the Council of Europe," Liddell says.

"One can easily understand why member states may feel considerable reluctance before entering into proceedings which are directed against one of their colleagues in the context of the Council of Europe. It's a rather clumsy weapon, in a sense."

Interstate Rulings

In its first ever interstate ruling, in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights found Britain guilty of mistreating Irish prisoners suspected of belonging to the Irish Republican Army, an armed group fighting British rule in Northern Ireland.

British security forces had used interrogation techniques such as stress positions and sleep deprivation. The court ruled that the techniques could not be classified as torture, but were "inhuman and degrading."

Britain did not pay the prisoners any compensation, but said it would refrain from using similar techniques during interrogations. For Ireland, which had not requested compensation, the satisfaction was in Britain's public acknowledgement that it had used inappropriate force in its interrogations.

Liddell says while the European Court of Human Rights can make recommendations about possible settlements following a verdict in an interstate case, final decisions about recompense are left to the two states themselves.

In 2000, the court ruled in favor of Denmark, which accused Turkish authorities of torturing one of its citizens while in detention. Afterward, the court facilitated a friendly settlement between the two governments under which Turkey acknowledged the use of torture and agreed to take part in a Council of Europe police training program.

And in 2001, the court convicted Turkey of a range of violations, including ill-treatment and disappearances, against the population of Northern Cyprus. A settlement for that case is still under discussion.

The publicity surrounding such an interstate lawsuit can be extremely punishing for the defendant country. But Philip Leach, the director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Center at London Metropolitan University and the author of "Taking a Case to the European Court of Human Rights," says diplomatic etiquette shouldn't deter countries from seeking redress in Strasbourg.

"States seem to be very reluctant to take other states to the European court; it's deemed to be an unfriendly act, and so perhaps they're worried about reprisals. It's very rare and I think that's regrettable," Leach says.

"I think it's potentially an important part of the system of collective enforcement in Europe. States should be willing and able to challenge other states when there are human rights violations."

Confident Of Victory

Georgia, at any rate, seems as unconcerned about etiquette as it is confident in victory.

Georgia's Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze said last month that his country would lodge a lawsuit against Russia only if it was "100 percent sure" of winning.

Sopio Japaridze, a lawyer at Georgia's Young Lawyers' Association, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service she thought that European court will rule that violations have taken place.

"There are enough documented facts that the rights of Georgians on Russian territory have been violated," she said.

Georgia's Young Lawyers' Association has helped 17 Georgian deportees file complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. These individual complaints are attached to the Georgian government's case.

It remains to be seen whether the Strasbourg court will accept the Georgian lawsuit as having sufficient evidence to merit a ruling. If the court agrees to hear the case, it may be three years or more before Tbilisi can expect a verdict.

(RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nona Mchedlishvili contributed to this report.)

Russia And Georgia

Russia And Georgia
Beefed up security outside Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi on September 27 (InterPressNews)

NOT ALL WINE AND ROSES. Moscow's relations with Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union have often been tense and strained. Among the issues that have made the relationship difficult are Moscow's alleged support for the breakaway Georgia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the continued presence of Russia troops on Georgian territory. Periodically, Georgian lawmakers propose withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) altogether. RFE/RL has written extensively about the rocky relationship between these two countries.


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RFE/RL's complete coverage of Georgia and Russia.