European Court Finds Russia Violated Human Rights in Georgia Conflict

The decision marks the second time the human rights court has ruled against Russia over the 2008 war.  

A wounded Georgian woman lies with other people in front of an apartment building, damaged by a Russian airstrike, in the northern Georgian town of Gori on Aug. 9, 2008. (AP Photo/George Abdaladze, File)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Russia committed several human rights violations during its brief 2008 war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Europe’s top rights court held Thursday.

The European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, found that the Russian military was in control of a Georgian breakaway region and permitted torture, illegal detention, and pillaging by militia groups operating in the area. 

“The court considers that the Russian Federation exercised ‘effective control’ over South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the ‘buffer zone’ from 12 August to 10 October 2008, the date of the official withdrawal of the Russian troops,” the Strasbourg-based court wrote. 

In the first European war of the 21st century, then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia in August 2018. Russia came to the aid of South Ossetia, accusing Georgia of aggression, motivated in part by Georgia’s attempts to join NATO. The conflict, called the Russo-Georgian War, killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 people.

Moscow has denied it is liable for violations of human rights that occurred in the region.

“Russia had no effective control over the territory where the conflict occurred,” Mikhail Galperin, Russia’s deputy minister of justice, told the ECHR in a 2018 hearing.

In one incident, a group of 160 Georgians, mostly elderly, were rounded up after a ceasefire was signed and held for two weeks in the basement of a government building, where they were subjected to beatings and mock executions. 

“During the conflict and after the cease-fire, there was a campaign of deliberate violence against civilians: houses were torched and villages looted and pillaged,” the European Union’s fact-finding mission into the conflict found. 

Georgia, a former Soviet Union state that became independent in 1991, filed three complaints against Russia over the conflict at the ECHR. The first case focused on Russia’s expulsion of 1,500 Georgia nationals from the region, and Russia was ordered to pay Georgia 10 million euros ($12 million) to be distributed to the victims. Another case was dropped in 2010 after the five Georgian minors at issue in the case were released from detention. 

Intrastate cases before the ECHR are rare. The court has only had 27 such complaints since it was created by the European Convention for Human Rights in 1953. A third of them have been against the Russian Federation. 

“Today is one of the most important days in the recent history of Georgia. The 12-year long dispute against the Russian Federation over the August 2008 war ended with Georgia winning the case at the European Court of Human Rights. This victory was inevitable and belongs to each and every Georgian,” Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said in a statement. 

But it wasn’t a total loss for Moscow. The EHCR found that acts that took place before the ceasefire was signed on Aug. 12, 2008, were not the responsibility of Russia.

“The court attaches decisive weight to the fact that the very reality of armed confrontation and fighting between enemy military forces seeking to establish control over an area in a context of chaos not only means that there is no ‘effective control’ over an area… but also excludes any form of ‘state agent authority and control’ over individuals,” the 17-judge panel wrote. 

Court watchers say Thursday’s decision is of particular importance for several other pending intrastate cases before the court between Russian and Ukraine over the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Last week, the ECHR ruled it has jurisdiction to determine whether Russia committed human rights violations on the Black Sea peninsula. 

The court said it wasn’t prepared to rule yet on damages in the Georgia case and asked Russia and Georgia to submit further briefs on the subject. 

Despite the ceasefire, tensions between the two nations remain high. Georgia does not recognize South Ossetia as an independent state and Russia has built a number of military bases in the region.  

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