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Aleksandre Palavandishvili’s Manipulation on Events Unfolding around the Ninotsminda Boarding School

Verdict: MANIPULATION

On 2 June 2021, Aleksandre Palavandishvili published a video address about the Ninotsminda boarding school where he voiced numerous pieces of disinformation and manipulative claims. In addition, he seeks to discredit the Public Defender and other human rights organisations as well as mislead the public.

Claim 1: “We are facing such a reality that the LGBT should decide how we raise our children. The LGBT is the one which will control and revise how we raise our children and the most outstanding of these absurd allegations and libels was that in the facility, children are forced to pray. Therefore, they are fighting us, they are going against the Georgian Orthodox Church simply because it is raising the children as Christians.”

Of note is that the protection of the rights of children, putting their best interests forward and providing conditions necessary for their development is an obligation of a democratic state. This obligation is cemented by the Constitution of Georgia, the Code of the Rights of the Child and numerous legal acts (for instance, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the so-called Istanbul Convention, etc.) recognised by Georgia. The Public Defender’s institution is vital for the respecting of these obligations since it is the primary human rights protection and monitoring body. Georgian legislation, such as the Code on the Rights of the Child and the Law on the Public Defender of Georgia, unequivocally mandates that the Public Defender is authorised to inspect the state of human rights and freedoms in orphanages and shelters. Given these legal provisions, the Public Defender carries out supervision on the state of the rights of children in government-run childcare facilities. In the case of the identification of violations, the Public Defender makes recommendations, drafts reports and appeals to different bodies for effective response.

In 2015, the Public Defender released a report on the state of the rights of children in boarding schools under the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Muslim confession. The report says that as a result of monitoring group interviews with children in the Ninotsminda boarding school, several cases of psychological and physical abuse was identified there. In addition, “in boarding schools run by the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the most widespread and trend-like forms of punishment is prostration. The tutors at the Stepantsminda gymnasium-boarding school send children accused of misbehaviour to the clergymen and the spiritual father makes them do prostrations for the purpose of punishment or repenting their sins. Around 50-100 prostrations are usually given as a punishment.” The young boarding school residents also talk about the obligation of doing prostrations in the case if they miss the prayers. In addition, the Public Defender states that monitoring revealed that the young Ninotsminda boarding school residents also have an obligation to do prostrations as a form of punishment. Moreover, the 2015 report indicates that monitoring group interviews with the children also revealed some cases of the tutors physically and psychologically abusing the children. In particular, it was revealed that the youngsters are confined to their rooms or forced to miss one of the daily meals as a punishment. According to the beneficiaries, the young residents are forced to walk on their knees with their hands on their heads in front of their peers in the corridors.

In his video address, Aleksandre Palavandishvili puts emphasis on this particular part of the report. According to his interpretation of the facts, the Public Defender criticises children performing religious rituals. In fact, the report pays attention to the fact that prostrations are used as a form of physical punishment which is inadmissible by the Georgian legislation. Therefore, Mr Palavandishvili’s statement is a manipulation and a distortion of facts, intending to discredit the Public Defender and foster negative attitudes against her amid the wider public.

Of important note is that the actions of different government and international institutions, together with the Public Defender’s reports, attest to the alleged violations of the rights of children in the Ninotsminda boarding school. On 7 May 2021, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued an interim measure to approve the 5 May 2021 appeal from the Partnership for Human Rights (PHR) NGO and urged the government to immediately instruct the relevant monitoring body to inspect the situation of children's rights in the Ninotsminda boarding school.

On 3 June 2021, the Ministry of Internal Affairs released a statement saying that there are four cases under investigation which were committed in the Ninotsminda boarding school between 2016-2021. Of these cases, there are three cases of alleged physical assault (Article 126 of the Criminal Code of Georgia) and one case of alleged rape (Article 137 of the Criminal Code of Georgia). According to the statement, investigations were launched for two cases on the basis of a written statement received from the Public Defender's Office whilst investigative procedures were initiated upon the request of the LEPL Agency for State Care and Assistance for the (Statutory) Victims of the Human Trafficking for the other cases. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also declared that “all necessary investigative and procedural activities were carried out as part of the investigation in order to determine the circumstances of the case. However, at this stage, there is a lack of sufficient evidence to establish the fact of the alleged crime. Despite this, the Ministry of Internal Affairs continues to conduct necessary investigative and procedural activities on each criminal case for a thorough and an unbiased investigation regarding all possible crimes committed.”

On 5 June, Tbilisi City Court partially approved the PHR’s motion and ruled that all disabled individuals must leave the Ninotsminda boarding school. After the court’s ruling, the Agency for State Care released a statement that 20 disabled minors were removed from the Ninotsminda boarding school and accommodated in different minor care facilities (biological families, family-type small group homes and foster care facilities).

Claim 2: They (the Public Defender and human rights organisations) have not gone inside and have no information what is happening inside. On the one hand, they say they are not allowed and are unaware what is happening inside and in the next sentence, they shamelessly speak about the violations which happen inside. Can you imagine that people who have not been inside speak about specific violations there?

On 16 April 2021, the Public Defender released a statement that representatives of the Public Defender were not allowed to carry out monitoring in the Ninotsminda boarding school on the previous day. The fact of hindering effective monitoring was also registered in 2018 when the Public Defender’s representatives were denied a chance to talk with children during the monitoring and were asked to leave the school’s premises. In addition, a social worker from the Agency of State Care was also devoid of an opportunity to carry out monitoring from June 2020 to May 2021.

Despite the aforementioned facts of hindering the Public Defender’s monitoring, it is important that the Public Defender has published reports in different years which include facts of violence identified in boarding schools, including the Ninotsminda boarding school. As mentioned earlier, the Public Defender released a report in 2015 on the state of the rights of children in boarding schools under the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Muslim confession. The report includes facts of physical and psychological abuse committed against children. The Public Defender’s 2018 report also contains information about the situation in children’s boarding schools, violence against children, the failure to meet a child’s individual necessities and the impossibility for the children to enjoy the myriad of rights envisioned by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition, the Public Defender’s annual reports also pay attention to these issues, highlighting multiple times that it is necessary to further strengthen and expand the monitoring capacity for the state of human rights in children’s care facilities (including the Ninotsminda boarding school) given the violations identified by the public defender.

Of note is that the Public Defender first started having problems in regard to monitoring in the Ninotsminda boarding school after the publication of the aforementioned report in 2018. The Public Defender experienced no important impediment whilst working on the 2015 and the 2018 reports. The severity of those reports indicate that they were able to find out more facts vis-à-vis the infringement of the rights of children and collect more detailed information about the state of children in those periods when the Public Defender’s representatives were not hindered from carrying out their monitoring.

Given the aforementioned circumstances, Aleksandre Palavandishvili’s statement is a manipulation. The Public Defender and other human rights organisations demand that the Public Defender is allowed to exercise legal duties which implies the possibility to send monitoring teams to the boarding school. As mentioned earlier, the situation in the Ninotsminda boarding school is given in different reports published by the Public Defender. In turn, these reports are based on the visits of the Public Defender’s representatives to the boarding schools and their interviews with the young residents. Therefore, it is precisely the information in the reports and the identified facts of violence that attest to the necessity of monitoring in the Ninotsminda boarding school.

Claim 3: With this code (the Code on the Rights of the Child), thousands of children were removed from their families for different reasons, including only because of a family’s poor financial situation.

Georgia adopted the Code on the Rights of the Child in 2019. The aim of the Code is to ensure the well-being of children, the protection of their rights and freedoms and the facilitation of the best conditions for the development of children. To this end, the Code provides the legal foundations for the system of protection and support of the fundamental rights and freedoms of children. According to the Code, Georgia’s government bodies, municipal and other administrative organs, courts, public and private entities and physical persons guide themselves with the best interest of children in making decisions vis-à-vis activities related to children or children’s issues.

According to the Code on the Rights of the Child, the child should have the right to live and be raised in a family where all conditions are ensured for the harmonious raising, development and well-being of the child. It is inadmissible for the parents or other individuals responsible for raising the child to use such methods of upbringing which involve physical punishment or the application of other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment against the child.

According to Article 26 of the Code, a child may not be separated from his/her parent against his/her will except when such a separation is necessary for the best interests of the child on the basis of a decision of a competent authority made in accordance with the legislation of Georgia. The separation of a child from his/her parents is the last resort and applied only when leaving the child with his/her parents poses a serious threat to his/her life, health and safety. At the same time, the government is obliged to take appropriate measures in order to ensure that adequate living conditions, healthcare and social protection services, inclusive education, effective mechanisms for the protection against unequal treatment and violence, and the guarantees for the protection of all other rights are accessible to the child. A child may not be separated from his/her parent because the parent does not have adequate living conditions or financial resources except when the carrying out of family support measures would not have a desirable effect or there are reasonable grounds to believe that the carrying out of such measures would not have a desirable effect.

A decision on the separation of the child from his/her parent is made by a social worker who should submit a motion to a judge of the regional (city) court based on the domicile of the child. The judge should review the motion of the social worker at his/her sole discretion without an oral hearing and make a decision within 24 hours on the separation of the child from his/her parent or on the refusal to grant the motion on the separation of the child from his/her parent. A decision on the separation of the child from his/her parent should be subject to a periodic review. Returning the child to the family environment after the reasons of his/her separation from his/her parent are eradicated should be in conformity with the best interests of the child.

Given the aforementioned circumstances, we may say that the claims in Aleksandre Palavandishvili’s video that the government is removing thousands of children from their families owing to the Code on the Rights of the Child and on the grounds of material well-being is a lie. As mentioned earlier, the separation of a child from his/her family is a last resort measure applied only for protecting the child’s life and health.

Claim 4: Anyone can enter the Ninotsminda boarding school, including the government which goes there with its social workers, etc.

Of initial mention is that the Public Defender is one of the most important state institutions. The Law of Georgia on the Public Defender and the Code on the Rights of the Child offer a clear definition that the Public Defender is authorised to inspect the state of human rights and freedoms in orphanages and shelters. According to Article 97 of the Code on the Rights of the Child, the Public Defender of Georgia, on his/her own initiative or upon the request of another person, should oversee the execution of this Code by state bodies, municipalities and legal entities under public and private law. This proves that the Public Defender is one of the most important state institutions in monitoring and protecting the rights of children. Therefore, the claim that government representatives are allowed to visit the Ninotsminda boarding school is evidently false.

In addition, it is importance to note that a social worker from the Agency of State Care was also denied the possibility to carry our monitoring in the Ninotsminda boarding school in parallel with the Public Defender. As a result of Bishop Spiridon’s decision, a social worker was not allowed to carry out monitoring in the boarding school from June 2020 to May 2021. Therefore, Aleksandre Palavandishvili’s statement is a lie.

Claim 5: They come and ask – why are you raising your children in line with your traditions, why are you saying prayers before meals, do you understand? They are asking the Patriarchate’s boarding school why you are praying before meals in the morning and in the evening. These people will enter our homes, too, unless we stand together.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Public Defender’s reports highlight the existence of religious ritual as a form punishment and not the performance of religious ritual itself. According to the Code on the Rights of the Child, it is inadmissible for the parents or other individuals responsible for raising the child to use such methods of upbringing which involve physical punishment or the application of other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment against the child.

Furthermore, according to the Public Defender’s 2015 and 2018 reports, monitoring group interviews with the children revealed certain cases of the tutors physically and psychologically abusing the children. For instance, it was revealed that young residents of the Ninotsminda boarding school were confined to their rooms or forced to miss one of the daily meals as punishment. According to the youngsters, minors are forced to walk on their knees with their hands on their heads in front of their peers in the corridors as a physical punishment. One of the most widespread and trend-like forms of punishment in boarding schools run by the Georgian Orthodox Church is prostration. The tutors of the Stepantsminda gymnasium-boarding school send children accused of misbehaviour to the clergymen and the spiritual father makes them do prostrations for the purpose of punishment or repenting their sins. Around 50-100 prostrations are usually given as a punishment. The young residents also talk about the obligation of doing prostrations in the case if they miss the prayers. Monitoring revealed that the young Ninotsminda boarding school residents also have an obligation to do prostrations as a form of punishment.

Given the aforementioned circumstances, Aleksandre Palavandishvili’s statement is a lie. In his video, he seeks to take advantage of the public’s acquiescence vis-à-vis violence against children and widespread religious rituals. Therefore, he disregards the real facts of violations in the boarding school, on the one hand, and shows the Public Defender’s work in a negative light based on different forms of violence (forcibly doing prostrations, walking on their knees, etc.), on the other hand.

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