LGBT Group’s Victory in|EU Court Bittersweet

     (CN) – Police in the former Soviet republic of Georgia should have known a peaceful protest against homophobia would be marred by violent counter-demonstrators, the European Court of Human Rights ruled.
     Identoba, a nonprofit LGBT-rights group in Georgia, organized a demonstration in 2012 to mark the International Day against Homophobia and asked police in Tbilisi to provide protection during the march given the level of hostility toward gays and lesbians in the former Soviet nation.
     The march was marred by counter-demonstrators from two religious groups that vastly outnumbered the 30 people who came out to support Identoba. Initially, the counter-protesters launched verbal assaults at the marchers, calling them “faggots,” “perverts” and “sinners.”
     Things took a violent turn when the religious groups blocked the marchers, encircled them and began physically assaulting them – while the Tbilisi police stood by and watched.
     At one point, some of Identoba’s members begged officers for help, only to be told that the officers weren’t part of the patrol and that it wasn’t their duty to intervene.
     Police eventually arrested four of the marchers, a move the Georgian government would later claim was to protect them from the counter-protesters.
     Identoba and 13 others filed criminal complaints, calling for an investigation of the police officers’ inaction and the prosecution of members of the religious groups. Eventually, only two of the counter-protesters were charged for disturbing the peace – and fined the equivalent of $51 each.
     But after officials in Tbilisi stonewalled demands by the LGBT group and its members for a full investigation, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming inhuman and degrading treatment, discrimination and constitutional violations of their rights to expression and assembly.
     On Tuesday, a seven-judge panel of the Strasbourg-based court found for Identoba and 13 individuals on all their claims.
     Citing widespread homophobia in Georgia, the court said that the violence and threats perpetrated by the counter-protesters – which also included shouted death threats just before the physical assaults began – rose to the level of degrading and inhuman treatment under the human-rights treaty.
     The court also noted that the Georgian government does not dispute that the marchers were the target of hate speech, and that the nation’s criminal law considers discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity an “aggravating circumstance in the commission of an offense.”
     “The court therefore considers that it was essential for the relevant domestic authorities to conduct the investigation in that specific context, taking all reasonable steps with the aim of unmasking the role of possible homophobic motives for the events in question,” the court wrote in its 26-page opinion. “The necessity of conducting a meaningful inquiry into the discrimination behind the attack on the march was indispensable given, on the one hand, the hostility against the LGBT community and, on the other, in the light of the clearly homophobic hate speech uttered by the assailants during the incident.
     “The court considers that without such a strict approach from the law enforcement authorities, prejudice-motivated crimes would unavoidably be treated on an equal footing with ordinary cases without such overtones, and the resultant indifference would be tantamount to official acquiescence to or even connivance with hate crimes,” the court continued.
     As for the lackadaisical police response at the march itself, the court said authorities should have known the situation would end up in violence and deployed more officers to begin with.
     “However, the limited number of police patrol officers initially present at the demonstration distanced themselves without any prior warning from the scene when the verbal attacks started, thus allowing the tension to degenerate into physical violence,” the court wrote. “By the time the police officers finally decided to step in, the applicants and other participants of the march had already been bullied, insulted or even assaulted. Furthermore, instead of focusing on restraining the most aggressive counter-demonstrators with the aim of allowing the peaceful procession to proceed, the belated police intervention shifted onto the arrest and evacuation of some of the applicants, the very victims whom they had been called to protect.”
     These failures by law enforcement also led to violations of the group’s right to expression and assembly, the court concluded.
     The court ordered Georgia to pay the 13 individuals sums ranging from $2,270 and $4,540, and Identoba $1,700 in damages.
     Identoba noted on its website last week that the Georgian government has informed the group it cannot not guarantee the group’s safety for the upcoming International Day against Homophobia remembrance – May 17 – unless it scraps plans for a march and confines themselves to the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in Tbilisi.
     Meanwhile, the Georgian Orthodox Church – one of the two religious groups that assaulted Identoba members in 2012 – has said it will mobilize 200,000 people to occupy every public area in Tbilisi the entire weekend to block any observance of International Day against Homophobia, including the Holiday Inn parking lot.
     The church has the government’s support to do so, Identoba said.
     “The state has given up on adequately punishing perpetrators of May 17, 2012,” the group said on its website. “Furthermore, it is simply unable to prevent violence that is announced in advance. State agencies are unceremoniously and openly linked to the Orthodox Church, and in 2015 they are not even trying to hide their reliance on the violent church to make basic human-rights decisions, including the ability of social groups to exercise constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
     “Georgia is now a theocracy,” the group added.

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