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Georgia: Court Verdicts on Border-Crossing Offenses Vary Depending on Nationality of the Accused

(July 11, 2011) Russia continues to expand its ties with the secessionist Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are promoted as vacation destinations for Russian summer travelers. (See news reports and travel information [in Russian], Abkhazian Embassy in Russia website (last visited July 8, 2011).) However, the border crossing into these territories from Russia remains a thorny issue in the region and has given rise to disparate treatment under Georgian law of those who illegally cross the border.

The Russian news agency Regnum reported that Georgian courts apply different guidelines and issue different sentences for citizens of Russia and Armenia, as compared to individuals from other countries, accused of illegally crossing the Georgian state border. (Georgian Courts' Judgments Are Based on Nationality [in Russian], Regnum Information Agency (Aug. 27, 2010).)

The problem became acute when, after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Georgia passed the Law on Occupied Territories, which asserts that the self-proclaimed secessionist states of Abkhazia and North Ossetia are part of the territory of Georgia. (Law No. 431-IIc of Oct. 23, 2008 [in English translation], Parliament of Georgia website (last visited July 5, 2011).) At present, Georgia has only one official entry point to Abkhazia and South Ossetia from inside of Georgia and does not recognize any other border crossings for entry to these territories as legal. This makes it impossible for non-Georgian citizens to enter Abkhazia or North Ossetia directly from Russia, which shares a long common border with these territories; they must travel far inside Georgia first in order to enter those areas. Under Georgian law, crossing a Russo-Abkhazian or Russo-Ossetian border constitutes illegal entry into Georgia and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment for a term of up to two years, or up to five years if committed by a group. (Criminal Code of the Republic of Georgia, art. 344 [in English translation], LEGISLATION ONLINE (last visited July 7, 2011).)

However, the Law on Procedure of Execution of Non-Custodial Penalties and Probation of July 19, 2007 (in English translation, LEGISLATION ONLINE (last visited July 7, 2011)) allows an individual accused of illegal entry to avoid a prison term and pay a fine for committing the same offense. The amount of fine is specified by articles 190 and 191 of the Georgian Code of Administrative Violations. As reported, this law does not apply to citizens of Russia and Armenia, who usually serve the full length of the prison sentences. This is explained in Russia by stating that Russia initiated the war and is viewed as an occupying power in Georgia, and Armenia is Russia's major strategic ally in the region and recently extended the stay of Russian troops on its territory. (Regnum Information Agency, supra.)

An article published in the Armenian newspaper ORATERT claims that only so-called “tourists” are allowed to plead guilty and pay the fine, while those who conducted business in Abkhazia or Ossetia or who somehow cooperated with the authorities of these unrecognized states inevitably face imprisonment. (Edik Hovsepian, Armenians in Georgia Are CriminallyPunished [in Armenian], ORATERT (Mar. 10, 2011).)

In August 2010, Van Bayburt, an advisor to the President of Georgia, blamed Russian border guards for intentionally misleading people, especially Armenians, by assuring them that it was legal to cross the border. (Russian Border Guards Push Armenians into Georgia [in Armenian] (Interview with Van Bayburt), Consolidation Internet portal (Aug. 28, 2010).)