Democratization experienced backsliding in all three countries of the South Caucasus during 2008, according to the US State Department's annual human rights report. Armenia received the harshest condemnation from Washington, which described "significant setbacks for democracy" that included the "worst post-election violence seen in the Caucasus in recent years." Azerbaijan's presidential elections "did not meet international standards for a democratic election, despite some government improvement in the administration of the election." And while Georgia's elections did meet international standards, the war between it and Russia resulted in abuses on all sides, the State Department said.
Armenia's human rights climate significantly worsened as a result of the violent government crackdown on citizens protesting the results of the February presidential elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ten people were killed in the violence. From then on, there were "significant restrictions on the right to assemble peacefully or express political opinions freely without risk of retaliation, and several opposition sympathizers were convicted and imprisoned with disproportionately harsh sentences for seemingly political reasons." The election-related abuses have significantly raised Armenia's profile as a human rights abuser; in last year's report, the country did not even warrant attention in the main summary.
At the end of the year, 59 opposition sympathizers were still in prison in Armenia, the State Department report noted. That compared to estimates of between 27 and 57 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and five in Georgia. However, the Georgian estimate comes from the government public defender's office, rather than from independent groups, which gave the estimates for Armenia and Azerbaijan. "Local NGOs [in Georgia] alleged there were political prisoners, but often could not agree on how they defined political prisoner or on the number of persons who qualified," the report said. The State Department also pointed out that opposition officials made a list in November 2007 of 42 people it considered political prisoners, and 14 of them remained in custody at the end of the year.
According to the report, war-related rights violations were not the most serious for Georgia in 2008: "The main human rights abuses reported during the year 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 pretrial detention facilities, police impunity, lack of access for average citizens to defense attorneys, reports of politically motivated detentions, lack of due process in some cases, and reports of government pressure on the judiciary."
The State Department report account of the war adheres closely to the version of events outlined in the January 2009 report issued by Human Rights Watch, Up in Flames, which chronicled abuses on all sides -- Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian -- especially indiscriminate use of force.
The State Department's spare chronology of the war suggests that it was Georgia who started it, not Russia, contrary to what US officials usually claim (but consistent with the Human Rights Watch timeline). "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," the State Department report said.
The State Department's 2007 report on Azerbaijan focused on problems with media freedom; this year, the reelection of Ilham Aliyev as president was the main source of concern. The election saw "serious restrictions on political participation and media, pressure and restrictions on observers, and flawed vote counting and tabulation processes." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The report's account relied heavily on the assessment of the election by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which found "a lack of robust competition and the absence of vibrant political discourse facilitated by the media."
Torture and abuse of prisoners was a problem in all three countries. In Armenia, "human rights groups continued to report that more than half of the individuals transferred to prisons from police detention facilities alleged torture, abuse, or intimidation while in custody," the report stated. In Azerbaijan, "a domestic human rights monitor reported that the number of persons tortured in custody by security forces increased from 63 in 2007 to 80 during the year." As with the question of political prisoners, the Georgian account of torture relies heavily on statements from the public defender's office rather than from independent groups. "The public defender's office noted 112 detainees who were admitted at pretrial detention facilities with injuries during the year, of whom eight claimed to have been injured as a result of physical pressure by police," according to the report.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.