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Friday, August 27, 2010

Mouths Wide Shut



(lifted off www.image.com)


Today, the Georgian NGO Coalition for Justice released a press statement calling for greater consideration for the rights of the displaced by the international community, reminding us that 400,000 IDPs were forced from their homes and communities by Russia since 1993. The press release, however, failed to mention that IDP rights are also threatened in Tbilisi.

Seven Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), have gone on a hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees, to protest their eviction from the Isani shelter two weeks ago. Four of them are so committed that they sewed their mouths shut. The eviction was ordered by Ministry of Economic Development, which is headed by the former head of the Coalition for Justice and Abkhazian IDP, Vera Kobalia.

IDPs have been abused and exploited since they were first forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; we just don’t hear much about it. Take the case of Batalbi Saghinadze, who had the nerve to fight his 2004 eviction and take it all the way to the Strasbourg Human Rights Court, which ruled in his favor on May 27 2010 and ordered the State to pay him 15,752 Euro in damages.

From IDP to Simon Templar

Batalbi Saghinadze was once a high-ranking Abkhazian Ministry of the Interior official until he was forced to flee Sukhumi in 1993. When he arrived in Tbilisi, the Georgian Minister of Interior gave him a job as Head of the Investigative Department and settled him and his family in a Ministry-owned cottage on the outskirts of town, which he improved and cultivated with fruits, vegetables and chickens. Eight additional displaced relatives moved in with him.

In 1998, 59 year-old Saghinadze retired from the Ministry and received a letter two years later confirming the legitimacy of his possession of the cottage and adjacent premises (based on an ordinance issued by the then Minister under the Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees Act of 28 June 1996). Right after the Rose Revolution, the newly appointed Minister of Interior, Giorgi Baramidze, asked Saghinadze to come out of retirement to lead the investigation into the unsolved, high-profile Levan Kaladze kidnapping case.

20 year-old medical student, Levan Kaladze, was the brother of Georgian football hero and AC Milan fullback, Kakha Kaladze. On May 23, 2001, two men in police uniforms snatched Levan after medical classes at university and demanded $600,000 in ransom. It is widely known that during the Shevardnadze administration, Ministry of Interior officials often moonlighted as kidnappers, which likely explains why no headway had been made into the investigation until Saghinadze – now a police colonel - came along and claimed high-ranking officials covering up criminal machinations in Georgian football were involved in the kidnapping.

The Indian Giver

At this time, up and coming National Movement good fella, Irakli Okruashvili, was Prosecutor General. He personally requested Saghinadze to drop the investigation in March 2004 and three months later, when Saakashvili promoted Okruashvili to Minister of Interior, the future wanted criminal removed Saghinadze from the case and fired him.

Most people would probably have just silently gone back into retirement, but Saghinadze, perhaps believing in the revolutionary government’s stated commitment to rule of law, submitted a confidential file, which contained information revealing abuses of power by Okruashvili and other high-ranking officials to the National Security Council, President Saakashvili’s consultative body. He should have known better.

Karma

The cops paid Saghinadze a visit and informed him that Okruashvili issued a verbal order to leave his premises. Saghinadze responded by showing the cops his letter of legitimacy and asked them to leave. They returned a few days later without a court order and Saghinadze again put them out. On October 31, 2004, the cops came yet again with around 15 “spetznaz” in black masks to evict the Saghinadze family, saying again that they had an oral order from Okruashvili. Undeterred and livid, Saghinadze argued that they either show a court order to enter his home or leave immediately. Not having the warrant, the cops retreated only to return the next day with around 60 armed men in black masks, who allegedly broke into the house, physically tossed the Saghinadze family out and boarded up their home.

Batalbi Saghinadze filed a civil action suit against the Ministry of the Interior, seeking to recover possession of the cottage under Articles 155, 159 and 160 of the Civil Code, and an injunction to stay in the house, which the court refused to grant. However, on December 30, 2004 the Krtsanisi-Mtatsminda District Court ordered the MoI to hand the house back over, ruling that his possession of the home had been legitimate and the eviction had been unlawful. The District Court also criticized the Ministry for taking the cottage without any legal decision, on the sole basis of the Minister’s oral instruction. The bad news was the court refused to order immediate enforcement of its judgment because the Ministry claimed it had stationed a unit of special forces in the house, which needed time to withdraw. When Batalbi visited his home the next week, local cops told him no special units had ever been stationed there.

The Ministry fought back and filed an appeal in January 2005 and won. Saghinadze challenged the appellate court’s decision in the Supreme Court, and lost again on Sept. 27, 2006. The MoI wasn’t satisfied with just beating him in court. In a method they would repeat on Okruashvili, who was now Defense Minister, the Prosecutor’s office ordered a search of his premises, witnessed only by local municipality officials, and found firearms and documents on criminal cases, including the Kaladze case. The Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case against Saghinadze for abuse of power committed by his investigative unit in 2004. Saghinadze was charged with unlawful possession of a gun, misappropriation of confidential official documents, ill-treatment of a person, fabrication of evidence and other abuses of power committed in public office. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison on 22 February 2007.

Strasbourg Pate

Saghinadze asserts that the criminal case against him was unlawful as there was no reasonable suspicion that he had committed the offences and that his detention had been ordered in retribution for his independent and professional investigation into the Kaladze case. Strasbourg found no evidence to support Saghinadze’s innocence, but it did rule the State illegally evicted him.

“...The Court cannot understand why, after he had lived there peacefully with his family for more than ten years, the first applicant’s (Saghinadze) occupation of the cottage should suddenly have become such a burning issue… What really matters for the Court is that the Ministry took the cottage without a court authorization obtained through fair and adversarial proceedings.”

Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere*

The Coalition for Justice has issued a press release intended for the international community when in fact it is the international community that funds all major IDP programs in Georgia and the Strasbourg court that ends up protecting the legal rights of IDPs like Batalbi Saghinadze from Georgian iniquity. The Coalition for Justice could press the government to ensure the rights of IDPs are protected, like the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Georgian Public Defender, Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association, Transparency International, and others, but instead the NGO takes the government’s line by stating the international community hasn’t done enough to punish Russia for causing people to sew their mouths shut in Georgia.


*Martin Luther King

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Those Lucky Internally Displaced People




www.pollsb.com



Last Friday, exactly two years to the day Ossetian irregulars "cleansed" the Tskhinvali region of its last Georgians while Russian troops consumed the spoils, the displaced were again expelled, only this time it was by Georgian authorities who gave them 7 hours to pack up and leave their shelter.


“A coincidence,” said Maka Esaishvili, NGO and donor officer of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees, “but it had to happen sometime.”

Yeah, and Stalin gave people 15 minutes to pack before he deported them.

It isn’t the fact that these internally displaced persons were evicted from their squalid shelters – they should have been moved long ago - it is the way it was done that was wrong. If the government really cared about the well-being of the people it continually reminds the world are innocent victims of Russia’s aggression, then why not treat them with the minimal respect guaranteed them by law. Coming quietly in the night to tell people they have to leave at sunrise is not just abominable, it is against the law.

The government’s attitude is, we give them houses or $10,000 bucks, what more do they want? Or as Maka says, “They get 10,000 dollars and are luckier than Tbilisi’s regular unemployed.”

Yes, Maka, these lucky people asked Russian and Ossetian troops to come steal everything they owned and raze their homes to the ground. They should be grateful for the government’s collective centers in the boondocks and bags of macaroni and $13 a month in aid, I mean it's a better deal than what the refugees got in 1993. They should be dancing in the streets because you have given them the option of receiving $10,000 in housing compensation – not complaining that you are making them dance through hoops to get the money.

The truth is, the surprise evictions were neither a surprise nor a coincidence. They were conducted in mid-August, a time when the country is on holiday. There were no TV cameras to report how hundreds of people were made homeless again.

“How did you find out about this?” Maka asked.

How indeed.



Friday, August 6, 2010

Sounds of The Caucasus, NYT


A plug for my favorite photographer in a NYT slideshow about Georgian polyphony

And, the story by VIVIEN SCHWEITZER