Ukraine launches spiral of illegality with abduction & expulsion of Georgians linked to Mikheil Saakashvili
Ukraine’s authorities acted in breach of Ukrainian legislation in forcibly removing Georgian nationals from Ukraine on October 21 and November 17, with consequences that are now virtually impossible to restore by legal means. This is the stark message from Valeria Lutkovska, Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson after investigating the so-called deportation of Georgians linked with Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgian President and now fierce critic and aspiring rival to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.
At a press conference on November 22, Lutkovsa mainly concentrated on infringements linked with the forced removal of three Georgians in October, but this was almost certainly because of the time she has had to probe the first and the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about the later removal of four men linked with Saakashvili and four other Georgians. On both occasions, there had been a clear breach of basic requirements of Ukrainian legislation and violation of the men’s rights.
As reported, three Georgian nationals were effectively abducted in the centre of Kyiv on October 21 and taken against their will to Georgia.
David Makishvili had been in Ukraine since 2014, and had applied his military expertise on Ukraine’s behalf both in combat in Donbas, and in training units of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, National Guard and Interior Ministry. He had a residency permit in Ukraine and had been given no warning of plans to revoke it.
Mikheil Abzianidze was also living legally in Ukraine, together with his wife, who has Ukrainian citizenship and their child.
While Georgy Rubashvili had reportedly overstayed his permit to be in Ukraine, there is due procedure for removing somebody under these circumstances.
Lutkovska stressed that legislation (the Law on the Status of Foreign Nationals and Stateless Persons, Instructions on enforced deportation or expulsion and other normative acts) clearly set out procedure regulating voluntary or enforced removal from the country. None of the three had agreed to leave voluntarily meaning that they could only be forcibly removed on the basis of a court ruling. The men then needed to be given a chance to appeal the ruling, which all of them would have done. There is nothing to indicate that any court was approached for the move to be sanctioned. Although it was asserted that the men’s residence permits had been cancelled in September, there is no evidence that the men were informed of this or of their rights under such circumstances, nor were they allowed to see a lawyer. The men were not only taken against their will to Georgia, but with the use of physical force, with the bags over their heads only removed when they were already in the plane.
The situation is especially grave in the case of Abzianidze. His ban from Ukraine for three years is in breach of the right enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to a family life. It effectively means that in order for the family to be together, two Ukrainian citizens have been forced out of their own country.
In fact, there were violations of several rights protected by the Convention, including the right to liberty and personal security (Article 5).
Lutkovska stressed that any forced deportation should have been on a civilian airline. While it remains unclear what exactly the status was of the plane in which the first three men were taken to Georgia, it must have been under the control of the law enforcement bodies.
Even if the men now appeal, the authorities have also imposed a ban on their entry, making the result of the appeal somewhat theoretical.
All bodies in Ukraine must respond to requests for information from the Ombudsperson. Lutkovska notes that the violations back in October were so apparent that she reacted immediately, yet has still not received answers to her questions from the National Police, who are believed to have carried out the forced removal of the three men.
She has called on the Prosecutor General’s Office to react appropriately to overt infringements by law enforcement agencies.
This is especially critical since the disregard for the law has continued, with the new removals on November 17, and the claims made by officials about them.
On 24 October, for example, Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko asserted that Saakashvili had forced subordinates, while Governor of the Odesa oblast, to organize residence permits for 20 Georgian nationals, and that they were now planning a ‘state coup’.
As mentioned, of the three people by then expelled from Ukraine with gross infringements of procedure, David Makishvili had fought for Ukraine in Donbas and Mikheil Abzianidze has a Ukrainian wife and child. The latter was seized on the street by men with automatic rifles while out buying medicine for his 4-month-old daughter, Nicole.
It is unclear how any of this fits into Lutsenko’s claims about a planned coup. It is undisputed that a country has the right to remove foreign nationals, especially if they believe the latter pose a threat to national security. This right does not remove its responsibility to behave in accordance with the Constitution, domestic legislation and international commitments. The failure to comply with such laws, the manipulation and distortion of facts and secrecy make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that they were expelled only because they had some connection with Saakashvili. Abzianidze had been his driver and was also among the people who met the politician when he arrived at the Ukrainian border after having been stripped of his Ukrainian (and only current) citizenship, also in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s Constitution and the law. Rubashvili is a former head of Saakashvili’s security. Ukrainska Pravda describes Makishvili as a consultant to Saakashvili’s guards, though Makishvili himself has denied any direct connection, aside from friendly relations, with the politician.
In contrast to the lack of any formal acknowledgement of the expulsions on 21 October, two state agencies were quick to report those on November 17. The SBU stated that “together with the National Police, State Migration Service and Border Guard Service”, they had carried out the enforced removal to Georgia of eight unnamed Georgian citizens. This was purportedly on the basis of material from the migration service and police demonstrating that the individuals were a threat to national security. It was asserted that all of this had been carried out in full accordance with domestic and international legislation.
The Interior Ministry’s Facebook report ended in the same way, but added curious details. Four of the Georgians were named, and were described as having been involved in extortion, stealing vehicles and burglary. There was no attempt to explain how this jeopardized Ukraine’s national security, and no details at all were given regarding the other four men.
This had the advantage for the authorities of 1) linking the expulsions to criminal elements 2) not acknowledging any connection with Mikheil Saakashvili and 3) pretending that everything had been done in accordance with legislation, and for bone fide reasons.
Saakashvili and his associates had, meanwhile, reported that Ukrainian special force officers had abducted Georgian TV Rustav-2 journalist Tamaz Shavshishvili and two of his colleagues. The reports kept differing in how the men were described. Ukrainska Pravda has since reported that the other three men were Georgian volunteer fighter Vano Nadiradze; a former guard to Saakashvili Zurab Tsintsadze and Georgian officer Mamuku Azashidze, who appears to have also fought for Ukraine in Donbas. .
Shavshishvili’s account of how he was seized and expelled bears much in common with those of the three Georgians abducted on October 21, with the main difference being that the men allegedly burst into his flat in the morning of November 17. Shavshishvili asserts that he had received a letter just a week earlier from Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy confirming his right to work in Ukraine. He recounts that the men who burst into his apartment kicked him, blindfolded him (with tape) and took him to the airport, from where he was taken by helicopter to Odesa. From there all four men were taken by ferry to Georgia.
Lutkovska has confirmed that the four people with criminal backgrounds were deported by the police, while Ukraine’s SBU were responsible for carrying out the highly irregular removal of the other four Georgians.
If Lutsenko has any grounds for his assertion about 20 Georgians and a planned state coup, there must surely be hard evidence that can be made public without jeopardizing state security. It would be helpful if the above-mentioned enforcement agencies could also explain how four men's involvement in extortion and theft endangered national security and, if they did not, whether mention of their expulsion served any legitimate purpose.
Other questions, and there are many, should be dealt with in a proper investigation as demanded by the Human Rights Ombudsperson. It is clear from her probe that no attempts to claim justification or public assurances of “full compliance with legislation” can hide the gross violations involved in the abduction and removal of three Georgians linked with Saakashvili on October 21, and a further four on November 17. The breach of the men’s rights and of Ukrainian legislation here, as well as with the removal of Saakashvili’s citizenship, demonstrate disturbing involvement of state bodies in actions that certainly arouse suspicion of being politically-motivated.