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UN Court Hears Georgian Claims Of Russian Rights Violations

Georgian First Deputy Justice Minister Tina Burjaliani at The Hague today
The UN's highest court has heard claims lodged by Tbilisi that ethnic Georgians have long been subjected to ethnic discrimination at the hands of Russia.

Georgia is arguing before the court that Russia has engaged in a "systematic policy" of discrimination against ethnic Georgians in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia dating back to 1991.

And in the wake of Russia's occupation of undisputed Georgian territory, The Hague-based court is being asked to uphold Tbilisi's right to protect its citizens from racial discrimination that has resulted in what Georgian officials are calling "numerous civilian deaths and the terrorization and mass exodus of the civilian population."

Moscow, which presented its side in a session on September 7, strongly denies the accusations.

From The Hague, Georgian Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that "the subject of the appeal is to prove the ethnic cleansing [committed by] the Russian side within the time frame of the early 1990s to the present day. This concerns ethnic cleansing both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia."

Moscow Backing

After achieving its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia became engaged in disputes with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which sought to break away from Georgia. Backed by Moscow, the two regions achieved de facto independence after wars in the early 1990s that resulted in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians being uprooted from Abkhazia and tens of thousands from South Ossetia.

The ICJ, which acts as a world court by deciding on disputes submitted by states, will hear three days of arguments relating to the complaints filed by Georgia in the immediate days following its brief war with Russia last month.

Russia argues that its military intervention in South Ossetia was necessary to prevent what it called the "genocide" of the resident Ossetian minority after Georgia attempted to retake the breakaway region by force on August 7.

Despite a cease-fire that called for Russian troops to withdraw to the lines established before August 7, Moscow has maintained a military presence in what it calls a "security zone" that includes undisputed Georgian territory outside both South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who on September 8 traveled to both Moscow and Tbilisi, announced Russia will pull back its troops from the security zone within a month.

The announcement came just hours after the Georgian government accused Russia of reinforcing its troop presence on Georgian territory, and just two days after the EU said it would send observers to monitor Russia's withdrawal.

Georgia has asked the court to take "provisional measures" for the protection of Georgian citizens.

"We consider this as a matter of utmost urgency because, right now, while we are here, the ethnic cleansing continues, not just in villages of the conflict zone, but also in villages surrounding Gori, Kareli, the Georgian villages that border the conflict zones, as well as in Gali region, upper Abkhazia," Gvaramia said.

"The Georgian population is being expelled from those places. Naturally, it is the Russian Federation which has to be held responsible for this because, right now, they are in effective control of those places."

Racism Convention

Georgia claims in court filings that, in intervening in South Ossetia and Abkhazia on three occasions from 1990 to the present day, Russia has violated the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Tbilisi believes that Moscow's actions, taken in concert with foreign mercenaries and the forces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have resulted in more than 400,000 Georgian citizens being forced from their homes between the early 1990s and the present.

Kirill Gevorgian, the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands -- who will present Moscow's arguments in the case -- denied that his country was in violation of any international accords.

"That is not true and we will produce facts and evidence that it is not true," Gevorgian told the Reuters news agency, dismissing as "nonsense" allegations of racial discrimination by Russia of Georgians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Each side had three hours to present its arguments during today's proceedings. On September 9, the court floor will be given to Georgia alone, followed by Russia alone on September 10.

If the court decides it has jurisdiction in the case, it could issue a ruling within two or three weeks. Normally, the ICJ's decisions are nonbinding.
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