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Opposition against partial decriminalization of entry into the occupied regions

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Friday, May 17
On May 15th the Georgian Parliament continued discussing the bill that would partially decriminalize foreign citizens’ entry into occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Heated debates took place between Georgian Dream and United National Movement (UNM) MP's over the issue. The ruling party claims that the bill was prepared after requests from various Western entities while the opposition categorized the proposed changes to the Law on the Occupied Regions as being in Russian interests as well as weakening Georgia's position.

The bill that was submitted by Deputy Reintegration Minister Ketevan Tsikhelashvili was presented to Parliament on May 2nd. However, due to strong resistance from the UNM the bill was postponed and debate continued on May 15th. Changing the date did not change the attitude of the UNM representatives.

According to existing legislation, foreign citizens entering the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Russia are subject to either a fine or a jail term of two to four years by the Georgian government. Punishment is only administered if the individual travels onward to Georgia proper.

According to the Georgian Dream proposed amendments to the Law on Occupied Territories, first time violators of the law would be subject to a 400 lari fine but if the individual commits the same offense then criminal prosecution would apply.

According to Tsikhelashvili, 254 foreign citizens have been punished by the Georgian government for violation of this law since 2009. Of those 254, 169 were imprisoned and the others fined. She stressed that only one-seventh of those were subject to criminal punishment were Russian citizens.

"These people were ordinary citizens, who had nothing to do with the occupation of Georgian territories... it was not deliberate in most cases." Tsikhelashvili said.

Tsikhelashvili explained that the proposed changes will not affect the main principles of the Law on the Occupied Territories.

"We are speaking about the rights of foreign citizens who are unfamiliar with Georgian legislation." Tsikhelashvili said.

United National Movement MP Givi Targamadze stressed that the current government's attempts to change some parts of the Law on the Occupied Territories "is a political issue and is a concession towards Russia."

Fellow opposition MP Goka Gabashvili suggested that the partial decriminalization of entry into the occupied regions might weaken Georgia’s non-recognition policy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence.

Nearly a year ago Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Moscow would consider lifting visa rules for Georgian citizens if Tbilisi repealed its Law on the Occupied Territories.

The EU has suggested reviewing the Law on Occupied Territories. A report issued by the European Commission in March 2013 reads: "Following the change of government, there are some encouraging signs of possibly more effective engagement with the breakaway territories, and a more relaxed implementation of the Law on Occupied Territories."