"Though Georgia has enacted important reforms in the justice system, further efforts are needed to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary," said Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of a six-day visit to the country. During the visit the Commissioner examined the course of reforms in the justice sector, as well as the situation of minorities and the challenge of promoting tolerance. To this end, he held discussions with government officials at national and local level, representatives of the judiciary and human rights structures, parliamentarians, non-governmental organisations and other actors in Tbilisi, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Marneuli and Rustavi.
"Serious efforts have been made to address the long-standing problems of ill-treatment and impunity, particularly in the prison system" said the Commissioner, while at the same time cautioning against complacency and reiterating the need for effective investigations into any misconduct. "It is important to ensure the sustainability of the positive changes which have been introduced."
The Georgian authorities have acknowledged the problem of illegal surveillance and the need to protect the privacy of individuals. Safeguards in this area are essential and the establishment of the new Data Protection Inspectorate is a welcome development.
Many interlocutors, including the Ombudsman, referred to the numerous individual complaints filed by citizens alleging convictions based on coerced testimony, problematic use of plea bargaining, selective targeting of political opponents through the criminal justice system, and illegal property transfers. "Allegations about abuses must be adequately processed and addressed. Clear case-selection criteria and legal mechanisms must be conceived, in line with international standards," said the Commissioner. More generally, he underlined that further reforms should be aimed at strengthening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, as well as the equality of arms and the rights of the defence in criminal proceedings. "The objective should be to establish firm foundations of a justice system which cannot be abused for political ends. At the same time, dissuasive criminal sanctions must be applied in respect of perpetrators of violent hate crimes. That is another reason why the prosecutorial authorities are a key actor and it is crucial that recruitment and promotion of prosecutors are based on professionalism, merit and integrity" observed the Commissioner.
The Commissioner was concerned to note reports about intolerant rhetoric, including hate speech, against certain communities, including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTI persons. In some cases, violent incidents have been reported. "A firm stance should be taken against violence and hate speech," stressed the Commissioner. "Georgia is a diverse country and the promotion of tolerance throughout all phases of the education system is especially important to foster a cohesive society. Decisive and systematic action should be taken by the authorities to counter intolerance and discrimination. I encourage rapid adoption and vigorous implementation of a comprehensive antidiscrimination law." Sharing his initial observations from the regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli, Commissioner Muižnieks urged the authorities to deploy greater efforts to teach Georgian to minority communities.
Finally, Commissioner Muižnieks welcomed steps taken by the new authorities to adopt a National Human Rights Action Plan and develop a long-term vision of systematic work for implementing human rights in the country. He noted that the future Action Plan should be closely linked to the on-going justice sector reform and must involve civil society and national human rights institutions.
A report on the Commissioner's visit is forthcoming.