23 May 2008, 21:36

Extraordinary Parliamentary Elections in the Republic of Georgia

Observers: Ivar Dale, Aage Borchgrevink, Norwegian Helsinki Committee/Human Rights Centre of Georgia

Background

1. On 20 May 2008 the observer team went to Abasha in the Samegrelo district (election distric #63), and then to Svaneti where we arrived in the early morning of 21 May. During election day, we stayed in the Svaneti district (Election district #47) and observed opening, voting and counting procedures at 7 polling stations. We also visited the #47 DEC in Mestia, and interviewed voters, commission members, and unidentified "visitors" at the polling stations. On election day, the team used observation report forms of the International Election Observation Mission. On 22 May the team went to the village of Khurcha in the demilitarized zone on the border of Abkhazia, in order to investigate an incident which took place in the

Samegrelo

2. In Abasha, district no. 63, we received a complaint regarding intimidation of a member of the DEC. Julieta Lomaia, b. 1968, DEC member for the United Opposition (#7 on the party list, who fielded Konstantin Gamsakhurdia in the majoritarian elections in that district). Ms Lomaia stated that she had received a number of threatening phone calls, with the aim of intimidating her. She gave us a recording of a phone call from the number 891276415, which contained a conversation in which an unidentified man swears and shouts in a threatening manner at Ms Lomaia. At about 18.00 on 20 May, we went to the police station in Abasha to observe Ms Lomaia register a complaint about the incident. The police (MIA officer Mikheil Modebadze) first refused to register a complaint on what seemed like spurious grounds (there was no one there on duty, they did not have paper on which to write the complaint, they could not find an official stamp), but after some time a complaint was lodged and officially registered.

Svaneti

3. In Svaneti, district no. 47, we observed a strong presence of civilian and uniformed policemen, border guards, heavily armed unidentified special forces with masks, and unidentified civilians whom locals claimed were security officers from Tbilisi at the polling stations. The heavy presence of security and police detachments created an atmosphere of intimidation, especially in Mestia, the district center. The opposition candidate Viktor Dzhabaridze made a number of complaints about his observers and commission members being harassed by police and security officers driving around in cars without plates, some of the claims were supported by pictures and witnesses.

4. According to the Ombudsman of Georgia, Sozar Subari, who was interviewed by the team on 18 May, pressure was put on local officials, including police officers, to support the government candidates during the election. Allegedly, the head of police made his officers swear on an icon to vote for the National Movement and its candidate, Khakha Kvitsiani. One policeman refused, and was allegedly dismissed. The allegations were confirmed by a policeman from Mestia interviewed by the team.

5. In general opening, voting and counting procedures on election day went smoothly, and we observed relatively few irregularities. There were no video cameras in the seven polling stations visited by the team. However, in conclusion, although technical procedures were handled effectively by the Precinct election commissions (PECs), the team made a number of observations indicating that the election was carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation, that may have affected voting patterns in the district. Below is a list of specific observations.

6. At PEC #2 in Mestia there was a strong presence of police and security officers at the polling station. Some were in uniform, some were in civilian clothes (but driving in vehicles of the border police), while a group of what appeared to be special forces driving a military truck (with the licence plate ZXZ - 342), armed with automatic weapons and wearing masks approached the polling station on several occasions. A man who appeared to be in contact with several of the police detachments at the polling station, entered the polling station. The opposition candidate Viktor Dzhabaridze claimed that the man was a security official from Tbilisi by the name of Ochinkava. The man told us he was only a private visitor from Tbilisi, but did not explain his presence at the polling premises. There was a tense atmosphere at the PEC.

7. At PEC #1 in Mestia there was also a heavy police presence outside the PEC, including the detachment of armed and masked special forces.

8. At PEC #22 some voters were turned away even though they were on the list. The group of people who were turned away was a detachment of border guards stationed in the village of Molakhi. According to one of the border guards, Dzhimsher Margiani (b. 1968), he was told by the PEC chair person he could not vote there, and that he and his colleagues should go in a group to PEC #24 were they should vote together. There seemed to be no basis in the election law for this procedure,which was upheld by the CEC lawyer Elizbar Joparidze when PEC members from political parties called the CEC. A member of the PEC made a formal complaint about this, stating that this was an attempt to put pressure on the guards to vote for the government candidate. (We later asked the DEC about the procedure, they first claimed that the border guards were registered in lists in several PECs, but then retracted saying they only followed the orders of the CEC.) Only one PEC member went with the mobile ballot box, not two as prescribed by law. There was a tense atmosphere at the PEC.

9. At PEC #3 we received complaints from a PEC member about double voting. However, she became silent when the other PEC members came, and it became impossible to record her complaint in detail. Two men in civilian clothes were at the polling station, they identified themselves as "academics" from Tbilisi, but could not explain their presence at the polling station. We had the impression that PEC members were afraid to speak with us. PEC members did not always check identification documents, and sometimes did not put ink on the hands of voters.

10. At PEC #4 the chairman reported that three people had been turned away as they had ink on the hands. Only one PEC member went with the mobile ballot box, not two as prescribed by law. We had the impression that PEC members were afraid to speak with us.

11. At PEC #5 the Chairman prevented us from speaking with PEC members and party observers. There was an independent domestic observer from the organization ISFED there, by the name of Eka Kvitsiani. While accredited as a local observer, when asked, she did not know which organization she represented. When asked to explain why, the Head of the DEC joined the conversation, told her to be quiet, and started talking on her behalf. She claimed to have seen no irregularities during election day. She also confirmed that she was from the same village, and was a relative of the government candidate in the Svaneti district. We had the impression that PEC members were afraid to speak with us.

12. No irregularities were observed during the count in PEC #18 in Dizi village.

The Khurcha Incident

13. On election day, 21st May 2008, Russian peacekeepers in the village of Khurcha, inside the de-militarized zone on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict line, reported of shootings at around 14:00. Georgian TV reported that buses carrying voters travelling from the Abkhaz side of the Inguri river to Khurcha had been hit by grenades and gunfire, and Georgian television showed dramatic images of exchange of fire, burning buses and people running in panic. Later the same day, President Mikheil Saakashvili travelled to Zugdidi and met with one of the wounded at the local hospital. The incident was widely televised in Georgia and abroad. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement blaming the Abkhaz side, with Russian support, for the incident.

14. The team reached Khurcha at 11:00 the following day, 22nd May 2008. Speaking to locals, officials and international military personnel, the observers learned the following:

15. The buses did travel from the Abkhaz side of the Inguri to Khurcha, carrying voters. The buses did not, however, go directly to the polling station in the village, but instead drove the voters to a soccer field nearby, situated close to the border between Georgian and Abkhaz controlled territory. A large group of journalists and TV-reporters had been brought there, to interview and film the voters from the Abkhaz side. Eye-witnesses report that shooting broke out and that people threw themselves to the ground. There were then three or four grenades fired at the buses, hitting both buses direct. Following this, heavy gunfire broke out, as Georgian soldiers and security services personnel started firing towards the Abkhaz side of the border.

16. The observers examined the site assisted by UNOMIG Military Expert Anders Tegnborg, who noted that the smaller of the two buses had been hit with what is likely to be an Under-slung grenade launcher . This weapon has a very short range, and requires special training to use with precision. The larger of the two buses was probably also hit with an RPG, as it was damaged more extensively. One of the grenades missed and hit the ground some thirty meters from the buses, indicating the direction from which the grenades were fired. The grenades were in all likelihood fired from the far side of the soccer field, in a direct arch towards the buses, at a distance of about 100 meters. At the spot where the grenades were fired from, large amounts of cartridges of three different kinds were found. The cartridges are from AKM, AK74 and PKM (more unlikely, SVD) of Soviet make, calibers used by both the Abkhaz and the Georgian side.

17. The governor of Khurcha declined to comment on the incident, but said that he did not organize the transportation of the voters. It is unclear who organized the bussing of the voters, but according to the governor, local officials and the local DECs were not involved.

Questions raised by the incident:

18. Local eye-witnesses explained that security forces in civilian clothing were either already present when the shooting started, or present shortly after, and returned fire. They were joined very quickly by Georgian Interior Ministry personnel. Khurcha lies inside the de-militarized zone, which means that Georgian military is not present there. The closest Georgian military post lies some 15 minutes driving on very bad roads away from the where the incident took place, not allowing for the time it would take to react to the sound of gunfire.

19. The rare and dramatic event occurred at the very moment when numerous TV-reporters had been brought to the village for a pre-arranged media show, effectively taking media interest away from numerous reports of electoral irregularities and violent incidents coming in from all parts of the country.

20. Local eye-witnesses all stated that they believe this incident was staged by the Georgian (that is, their own) side, noting in particular the fact that the passengers were brought not to the voting station in the center of town, but to the soccer field, that so many journalists had been brought there in advance, that it was unclear who organized the busing, and the rapidness with which Georgian military arrived at the scene.

21. That the grenades were fired from within the Georgian side of the conflict zone, at a very short distance.

22. That the incident took place during a staged media-show, playing into the recent focus of the Georgian government on the Abkhaz c nflict, and that it involved further screen time for president Saakashvili on Election Day.

23. The fact that the buses were not organized by local officials tasked with arraying the electoral procedures.

24. Georgian authorities should launch a serious, independent investigation of the incident to find out the circumstances of the attack and to identity persons responsible for what is a criminal act. If indeed staged by Georgian authorities themselves, the incident is a disturbing example of cynicism, playing on the tragedy that befell the victims of the Abkhaz conflict, risking the lives and health of innocent civilians for political gain.

--- Tbilisi, 23 May 2008, Ivar Dale and Aage Borchgrevink

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