By Ken Silverstein
Guess which Eastern European country will soon have the third largest military force in Iraq? That same country is strongly pro-NATO and has on retainer a Washington lobbyist who was a leading advocate for the war in Iraq? Now guess which country is getting a free ride from the Bush Administration—and the media—on human rights and democracy?
The answer is Georgia. Ever since the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet official, the Bush Administration has maintained close ties to the government in Georgia. The media, too, has been sympathetic to President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is generally portrayed as a spunky leader who is creating a Western-style state bound by the rule of law.
That portrait, though, is far from accurate. In 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report that described “the ongoing impunity for torture, a problem that persists despite some government measures taken to combat it.” In another report last year, “Undue Punishment: Abuses against Prisoners in Georgia”,” Human Rights Watch found that many prisoners “live in severely overcrowded, filthy, and poorly-ventilated cells. In the last two years, the prison population has nearly doubled due to the routine use of pretrial detention, even for nonviolent offences.” (Incidentally, there were 16,911 convictions in Georgia last year and just 37 acquittals, a rate that even an old Soviet-era prosecutor would have had a hard time matching.)
This year, the U.S. State Department’s own human rights report says of Georgia, “The government’s human rights record improved in some areas during the year, although serious problems remained . . . [T]here were some reports of deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuse of prisoners, impunity, [and] continued overuse of pretrial detention for less serious offenses.”
Consider court proceedings now under way against Maia Topuria, a 41-year-old mother of three who along with 12 other defendants is now on trial for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government. In an echo of the Communist era, the judge has closed the courtroom to the public, the media and foreign observers. The defendants, who are members of the political opposition, are held in cages in the courtroom (except for one, who was released after providing an incriminating statement against the others).
The evidence, to put it mildly, is weak. When they were originally arrested, the defendants were accused of participating in a May 24, 2006 meeting where they were said to have plotted the government’s overthrow. When one of the defendants proved that he was out of the country on that day, the government changed the date of the alleged plot to May 4. When another defendant proved he was at a cardiac clinic on that day, the government suggested he sneaked out to attend the coup meeting, though four doctors at the clinic have said it that would have been impossible for him to have done so unnoticed.
The government has offered as evidence a handwritten statement implicating the defendants from a witness who claimed he provided it in September of 2006 after he heard of the plot. But when questioned by a defense attorney in court, the witness could not even define numerous words from his original statement. (He defined “dispute” as “a TV debate,” “imitation” as an “attempt,” and said that he no longer knew what “spontaneous” meant but he did when he wrote his original statement.)
“The government doesn’t want any public scrutiny of the case because there is no case,” Melinda Sarafa, an American lawyer who is representing Topuria, told me. “Every day I’m in court I wish the media were there because the situation is so preposterous.” Sarafa says that Georgia is moving towards a “super-executive” style of government with no meaningful checks and balances, and charges that other than the State Department report, she can find “no other affirmative efforts by the Bush Administration to express concerns about identifiable instances of human rights violations.”
The Bush Administration could probably stop the farcical trial if it complained to the government, but since Saakashvili is “pro-Western” it doesn’t utter a peep of protest. Its silence might have something to do with the fact that Georgia recently announced it would increase its troops in Iraq from 850 to 2,000. After South Korea pulls its troops out, as it has announced, that will leave Georgia, a nation of about 4.5 million people, with the third largest contingent in Iraq after the United States and Great Britain.
Georgia’s cause in Washington is probably also helped by its lobbyist, Randy Scheunemann, a former advisor to Donald Rumsfeld who helped draft the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. A week after the 9/11 attacks Scheunemann joined with a group of conservatives who sent a letter to President Bush calling for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, and in 2002 he became the founding president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; now he’s helping former Soviet Bloc states win business there.
It’s ironic that the Bush Administration criticizes Russia for backsliding on democracy but says nothing about similar types of problems in Georgia and other former Soviet states that have undergone pro-Western revolutions. The media faithfully echoes the charges on Russia but has generally failed to explore the situation elsewhere in Eastern Europe.