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Monday, January 26, 2009

Russian Allegations against Georgia of Genocide and Other War Crimes

My last time in Abkhazia, everybody talked about the 2000 civilians the Georgians murdered and the babies they ran over in tanks. Many raised an accusatory finger at me for not reporting "the truth."

"What truth?" I replied.

2 days after the Georgian offensive against Tskhinvali, Russian media came up with a round figure of 2000 civilian deaths, which is certainly easy to remember. Although the Russian authorities eventually counted 162 official deaths, the damage had been done, particularly as the lower number had not been widely reported in Russia and elsewhere. All over the net you will find 2000 as the accepted number.

When I asked the Abkhaz if they had heard about the genocide being committed against Georgians, they stared blankly back. In the pause that followed they seemed to be remembering the atrocities committed against them in 1992 by Georgians.

"Action brings reaction," was the response, which is how they justify the fact Georgians no longer live in Abkhazia (Gali excluded).

HRW published their report a couple days ago. Here's a section of the report regarding Russia's genocide allegations:

Political Statements and Russian Criminal Investigation

From the very beginning of the conflict, Russian authorities put significant effort into documenting alleged violations by Georgian forces. An investigation is being conducted by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Prosecutor’s Office (Sledstvennyi Komitet Prokuratury, or SKP).

During his August 10, 2008 meeting with the head of the SKP, President Dmitry Medvedev stated that “the actions of the Georgian side cannot be called anything other than genocide,” and ordered the SKP to document the evidence of crimes committed by Georgian forces in South Ossetia in order to create a “necessary basis for the criminal prosecution of individuals responsible for these crimes.” ...

...On September 25 the head of the SKP reported that the evidence-gathering phase of the investigation had been completed and that “[t]he investigative work allowed us to come to an unequivocal conclusion that the goal of the aggressors was the total annihilation of the national group of Ossetians residing in South Ossetia.”

Human Rights Watch does not have access to the SKP’s investigative files and thus cannot assess the evidence gathered and the validity of these allegations. HWR’s written requests to the Russian government to meet with the prosecutor’s office went unanswered.

Russia’s Allegations Not Supported by Available Evidence

Information collected by HRW suggests that while the actions by the Georgian forces clearly violated international humanitarian law, they did not amount to the crime of genocide. This opinion seemed to be shared by the rapporteurs of the Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee), who visited Georgia and Russia at the end of September and prepared a report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

During the hearing, Rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights Christos Pourgourides noted, The facts do not seem to support the genocide allegations against Georgia: the number of Ossetian (civilian) victims of the Georgian assault (“thousands” according to early numbers cited by the Russian authorities relying on “provisional data”) seem to be much exaggerated;...Individual
atrocities such as those described in certain Russian media and submissions to the Committee of Ministers would be serious crimes in their own right, but not attempted genocide. Some statements attributed to SKP representatives also raise serious concerns about the accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation. For example, reporting on the findings of the SKP on August 21, Rossiiskaya Gazeta (the main official Russian newspaper) wrote,

In the village of Tsinagar[i], the aggressors executed all civilians in a church where they tried to find refuge. According to Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, Georgian soldiers were dragging pregnant women out of houses and beating and killing them for delectation of the crowd. One Tskhinvali resident was trying to protect her child from the Georgians, but the baby was shot dead right in her lap.

HWR interviewed a resident of Tsinagari who said that no such thing happened in his village. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the same incident to the village of Dmenisi instead. However, numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by HRW in that village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.

HRW researchers were told similar hearsay accounts of atrocities allegedly committed by Georgian troops in other villages of South Ossetia, but our follow-up research did not confirm these allegations. For example, in August, right after the end of hostilities, several people told Human Rights Watch that civilians were burned to death in a church in Khetagurovo. When Human Rights Watch visited Khetagurovo, local residents vehemently denied such allegations. A staff member of the South Ossetia Committee for Press and Information told Human Rights Watch that the incident actually happened in Sarabuki. Our researchers immediately traveled to Sarabuki, only to discover that local residents had not even heard that story.

Similarly, hearsay allegations of rape circulated widely in South Ossetia, but no leads provided to Human Rights Watch produced credible results.

Accusations of atrocities and genocide allegedly committed by the Georgian troops were also widely publicized by the Public Commission for Investigating War Crimes in South Ossetia, a group of Russian and South Ossetian public activists working with the prosecutor’s office of the de facto South Ossetian authorities. The commission was created on August 12, 2008, and immediately went to Tskhinvali and started interviewing witnesses and collecting other evidence of violations committed by Georgia.

A report published by the commission shortly thereafter contained numerous statements by survivors and witnesses of Georgia’s assault against South Ossetia. However, in many cases, especially the ones describing deaths or injuries, the necessary details and analysis were missing that would have allowed determination of whether the victims were civilians or combatants (especially in the cases of male victims), and whether the circumstances of their death suggested violations of the laws of war by Georgian forces.

HWR asked the Public Commission for the names of witnesses who could confirm the stories of specific egregious acts by the Georgian forces, including the burning of civilians in a village church (the alleged Khetagurovo/Sarabuki incident mentioned above). Commission representatives promised to provide this information, but at this writing they have not done so.