Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

The constitution of the Republic of Georgia provides for an executive branch that reports to the president, a unicameral parliament, and an independent judiciary. The country has a population of approximately 4.6 million. President Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected on January 5 in an election that international observers found consistent with most Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) democratic election commitments; however, they also highlighted significant problems, including widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, flawed vote counting and tabulation processes, and shortcomings in the complaints and appeals process. These and other problems continued into the parliamentary elections on May 21, which international observers concluded were uneven and incomplete in their adherence to international standards.

Other reported human rights abuses included at least two suspected deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, intimidation of suspects, abuse of prisoners, poor conditions in prisons and detention facilities, police impunity, lack of access to defense attorneys, politically motivated detentions, lack of due process, and government pressure on the judiciary. Respect for freedom of speech and the press lessened but began to rebound by year's end. Other problems included violence against opposition members, reports of corruption among senior officials, and trafficking in persons. Significant achievements included the closing of a prison known for its substandard conditions and resumption of government funding for opposition parties that passed the threshold percentage of 5 percent.

Repeated violations of a ceasefire by all sides in the separatist region of South Ossetia, including assassinations, bombing, and then exchanges of shelling, escalated tensions. On August 7, senior Georgian government officials reported that Tbilisi was launching an attack to defend against what it reported was a Russian invasion. Georgia launched a military operation into Tskhinvali, the local capital of Georgia’s South Ossetian region, and other areas of the separatist region. The situation deteriorated further after Russia launched a military invasion using disproportionate force across the country’s internationally recognized borders, responding to what Russian officials reported was Georgia’s use of heavy force in Tskhinvali and the killings of Russian peacekeepers. Military operations by Georgian and Russian forces reportedly involved the use of indiscriminate force and resulted in civilian casualties, including a number of journalists. South Ossetian militias allegedly engaged in executions, torture, ethnic attacks, and arson. Russian forces continued to block access to and within Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Georgians and international organizations, making it dangerous for residents and difficult to monitor conditions with respect to human rights and compliance with humanitarian law.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

The U.S. Government's strategy for promoting human rights and democracy focuses on: democratic political processes, including elections; the rule of law, including an independent judiciary; fundamental freedoms and human rights; anticorruption measures; a vibrant civil society; the rights of internally displaced persons; and antitrafficking efforts. Senior U.S. officials encouraged the government to continue efforts to democratize and improve respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including media freedom.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

Supporting democratic political processes remains an overarching goal of U.S. democracy promotion and U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, who promoted this objective. U.S.-funded implementers worked to strengthen the transparency, responsiveness and institutional capacity of the parliament. U.S. programs supported public roundtables that brought legislators and citizens together to discuss public affairs, the development of policy and research papers that informed draft legislation, and the formation of mechanisms for opposition parties to hold negotiations with the majority party.

The January presidential and May parliamentary elections benefited from a multi-year U.S. diplomatic and programmatic assistance program. The ambassador, together with the other OSCE ambassadors in Tbilisi, pressed the government to take key steps prior to the presidential election, including fully funding and assigning areas of responsibility for the Central Election Commission (CEC), developing training plans that included increasing professionalization of precinct level commissions, ensuring participation of ethnic minorities in elections, developing long-term voter education, conducting a periodic update of the voters' list as required by law, and amending the Unified Election Code. U.S. assistance supported many of these steps, including by working with the Civil Registry Agency to improve the accuracy of the voter registry database. In the months before the election, U.S. assistance helped political parties develop campaign strategies informed by voter research, assisted them in the creation of a Code of Conduct, and supported televised debates. The United States subsidized the distribution of 140 fax machines to precinct election commissions, speeding up the posting of reporting results to the central election commission official Web site, and improving the transparency of the election results. U.S. assistance also supported two international election observer missions and the development of local NGOs that proved themselves to be independent and professional election watchdogs.

U.S. programs provided training to Georgia’s Public Prosecution Service, judges, and defense lawyers to investigate, prosecute, litigate and adjudicate elections-related grievances, and supported a hot line for the public to register election law violations. As part of its efforts to promote democratic parliamentary elections, the Ambassadors' Working Group issued a statement in May expressing concern about reported violence and intimidation before the parliamentary elections. The ambassadors also urged demonstrators to take a non-violent path that would not impede the electoral process. Ahead of the parliamentary elections, U.S. officials and assistance continued to work to improve election administration, strengthen political parties, increase citizen participation and bolster elections-related media coverage. The United States supported an Internet-based public awareness forum which put voters in contact with representatives from the Central Election Commission and introduced them to Web-based information on the election process. In April the United States funded the travel of Scotland Yard and U.S. officials to conduct a seminar for prosecutors from all regions to detect, investigate, and prosecute election-related crimes, including misuse of administrative resources. As part of a public diplomacy campaign, U.S. officials appeared on television shows and traveled throughout the country to speak about the importance of voting. A co-operative program brought a Georgian television crew to the United States to cover the Pennsylvania primaries as a model; a television talk show introduced voters to the concepts of parallel vote tallies, exit polls and weaknesses thereof, and international monitors; and U.S. exchange program alumni conducted a series of nation-wide quizzes to educate first-time voters. Two public service announcements raised public awareness on how to report election violations and the appropriate role of police during elections, and encouraged voters to raise their voice/vote (the same word in Georgian). The United States also supported indigenous monitoring efforts, including parallel vote tabulation and parallel turnout tabulation initiatives.

The United States continues to promote the rule of law -- including the creation of an independent judiciary -- both diplomatically and programmatically. In 2008 the United States supported a program that increased public awareness of legal rights and assisted in reform of the legal system. The United States provided technical assistance to support the development of a Council of Europe-compliant criminal procedure code that will codify human rights protections and will implement jury trials on a pilot project basis. Throughout the year, U.S. assistance provided training to prosecutors on how to dissect a case, conduct direct and cross examinations, select juries, and develop general trial skills. By year’s end, the Tbilisi Criminal Court launched a six-month trial monitoring project to identify faults in existing court practices and areas needing improvement. U.S. assistance enabled an appellate court judge to conduct workshops on judicial ethics and discuss the importance of standardized curriculums and legal training. In 2008 assistance supported the implementation of the ban on ex parte communications in the training of the prosecutors, strengthening the bar association, continuing legal education, and publishing a law journal. U.S. assistance supported three law clinics run by law students and an organization that provides legal assistance to victims of domestic violence. In 2008 the United States supported the opening of a second Street Law Clinic where law students can receive academic credit to assist in their completion of a skills-based legal education. The law students in turn will conduct civic education for students in local high schools.

Throughout the year, senior officials, including the Secretary of State, stressed the importance of free media in meetings with government officials and others. The Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs consistently promoted media freedom in public and in private meetings. In a June visit, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor spoke with government officials, NGO leaders, political party representatives, and others about a variety of concerns, including media independence and human rights. In honor of Human Rights Day, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor spoke about media freedom to representatives from NGOs, media, the parliamentary opposition, and the Public Defender’s Office via a digital video conference (DVC) organized by the embassy on December 10. Also in December, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs again emphasized the importance of media freedom with government interlocutors and with the non-parliamentary opposition, and gave an in-depth interview on the topic to a local newspaper. U.S. assistance supported the development of independent and journalist professionalism through grants to regional outlets and support for the development of an institution that provides higher education and training to media practitioners. In April U.S. assistance supported dialogue across borders through the training of 80 journalists from the Caucasus region by introducing technologies for supporting free speech. The United States provided funding for three independent media outlets to rebuild or replace radio transmitters and other media equipment damaged or stolen during the August war with Russia, allowing these stations to resume broadcasts of essential news and information programs.

The United States continues to support the country's ongoing efforts to battle corruption through development of local government and training for police. The U.S. Government provided substantial support for revision of civil, administrative, and criminal codes; this has clarified procedures and removed the discretion of public officials that had facilitated corruption. In 2008 U.S. assistance supported the ability of local government representatives in Ajara to develop and employ modern public administration practices, leading to the production and incorporation of Ajara’s first Human Resources Policy Manual and a Project Management Manual.

The United States continues to work through the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), the OSCE, the European Monitoring Mission (EUMM, and other multilateral mechanisms, and directly with the government, to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts and promote human rights and democracy in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including the right of internally displaced persons to return safely and voluntarily to their homes. After the August conflict, many of those who were displaced were victims from areas directly affected by the fighting where South Ossetian militias engaged in executions, torture, ethnic attacks, and arson in areas controlled by Russian forces. The U.S. Ambassador on War Crimes traveled to the country in early September and advised officials on how to address war crime concerns in international tribunals. Two prosecutors subsequently traveled to the United States with U.S. support to gather recommendations on war crime investigations.

The U.S. Government raised concerns privately and publicly about the use of excessive force by law enforcement against protesters in November 2007. With U.S. support, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Justice lab personnel received training on forensic analysis; an evidence-based approach that is expected to reduce forced confessions. Evidence technicians also received training on the proper collection and packaging of evidence and crime scene management. The United States trained the country's patrol police on how to develop community policing and crowd management measures. The United States also provided training on communication and management skills to mid-level police officers to improve public outreach and facilitate interaction with the media.

The United States continued to promote dialogue between the government and minority communities and their integration into the social fabric of the country. U.S. officials regularly met religious and community leaders, civil society groups, and local government leaders in regions with large ethnic minorities, as well as with religious minority groups. This year, groups traveled to both ethnic minority areas before both elections to gauge concerns and to encourage voting. To support development of civil society within minority regions, the United States worked with NGOs to organize capacity building seminars, social outreach programs, networking opportunities with domestic and international NGOs, and tolerance in the schools projects. In 2008 U.S. assistance supported a minority TV talk show on the country's public television station, small grants to local NGOs working on minority issues and developing a proposed framework for the government's National Integration and Tolerance program.

U.S. funding assisted in the creation of a disabilities policy paper that was adopted by the parliament and will serve as a springboard for an action plan. During the presidential election, U.S. assistance equipped two polling stations in Tbilisi for handicapped voters to encourage their participation in the process and to highlight the importance of including the disabled in civic practices. U.S. officials meet regularly with counterparts in the Ministries of Health, Justice, the Prosecutor General's office, NGOs, and other agencies to promote government efforts against trafficking. U.S. funding supported the creation of training materials that the Ministry of Defense used to inform soldiers about trafficking and their reporting responsibilities prior to deploying on peace-keeping missions. Patrol police routinely use training materials and curricula, updated again in 2008, that were developed and provided via U.S. support.

U.S. assistance continued to raise public awareness of trafficking issues, using a variety of printed and visual materials with antitrafficking messages.