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Rights court to hear claims of Russia-linked abuses in Georgia

The European Court of Human Rights will examine allegations that Russia-backed border guards in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway territories, have committed abuses against ethnic Georgians.

(CN) — Europe's human rights court on Thursday agreed to open hearings into allegations that Russia-backed border guards in Georgia have committed a wide range of crimes, including killings, while policing the boundaries of the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The European Court of Human Rights said in a press release there were sufficient grounds to hear the case brought against Russia by Georgia, its southern neighbor and former Soviet republic.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August 2008 that led to Moscow's military occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and its recognition of the regions as independent states. The war in Georgia foreshadowed Moscow's move to send in troops to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. In both cases, Moscow said it needed to protect Russian-speaking populations.

The court, based in Strasbourg, France, said it would take up the allegations even though Russia withdrew from the court's jurisdiction after its parliament quit the Council of Europe and stopped recognizing the European Convention on Human Rights following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The court said it had jurisdiction over this case because the alleged border abuses took place before Russia ceased being a party to the convention on Sept. 16, 2022.

Regardless, even before it quit the Strasbourg court, Moscow had largely ceased complying with the court's mounting number of rulings against it and largely stopped paying fines ordered by the court.

Nonetheless, the court's trials looking into human rights violations in Russia and in other European countries with disturbing track records, such as Turkey, serve to bring attention to cases that are often rejected by domestic courts.

In this case, Georgia accuses Russia-linked border guards of killing three Georgian men and harassing, unlawfully arresting, assaulting, torturing and intimidating ethnic Georgians trying to cross the border or who live along it.

Georgian authorities accuse Russia in the death of Archil Tatunashvili, a 35-year-old Georgian soldier who died while in the custody of separatist forces in South Ossetia. Separatists accused him of seeking to commit acts of terrorism.

His body was removed from Tskhinvali in South Ossetia by the International Committee of the Red Cross in March 2018, according to Georgian news reports. When the body was handed over to Georgian authorities, its internal organs were missing, according to Georgian prosecutors.

The body of another man, 19-year-old Davit Basharuli, was found hanging in a tree in South Ossetia and Georgia accuses border guards of killing him, according to news reports. Tbilisi also accuses a border guard in South Ossetia of killing 30-year-old Giga Otkhozoria after he refused to pay guards to allow him to take food to a funeral in South Ossetia.

Besides these cases, the court said Georgia's intelligence services and government and international human rights organizations presented enough evidence of abuses to proceed with hearings.

It noted that a European Union monitoring mission received 2,741 complaints between 2011 and September 2018 after it set up a hotline people could call to report abuses at the border.

“Therefore, the Court found that the available material was sufficient to amount to prima facie evidence of the 'repetition of acts' which were sufficiently numerous and interconnected to amount to a 'pattern or system' in breach of Articles of the Convention,” the court's news release said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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