Russia committed a series of human rights violations during its war with Georgia in 2008, the European court of human rights ruled on Thursday, saying Moscow was responsible for the murder of Georgian civilians, and the looting and burning of their homes.
In a landmark judgment, the court said the Kremlin was guilty of unlawfully rounding up ethnic Georgians and their subsequent “inhuman and degrading treatment”. This included the torture of Georgian prisoners of war and the expulsion of Georgian villagers from their homes in South Ossetia.
The ruling comes 13 years after a bitter five-day August conflict between Russian forces and Georgian troops. The then Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili launched a doomed attempt to wrest back control of the Russian-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
Russia responded with a full-scale invasion. It evicted Georgian forces, sent tanks into the country, and bombed civilian and military targets. In evidence presented to the Strasbourg court in 2018, Tbilisi accused Moscow of presiding over a “rampage” through Georgian villages inside South Ossetia and in a nearby buffer zone.
South Ossetian forces and local militia groups were responsible for many violations, including the execution of two Georgian soldiers taken prisoner and the beating to death of another, the court said. But it ruled Russia had effective control of the war zone once an EU-brokered ceasefire came into effect from 12 August 2008.
Amid international recriminations, Russia failed to investigate war crimes and systemic human rights abuses, the judges ruled. It further prevented the return of 20,000 Georgians who had previously lived inside South Ossetia, and whose villages were burned to the ground, they said. Nor did it cooperate with the proceedings, they added.
Georgia’s justice minister, Thea Tsulukiani, described the verdict of the court’s grand chamber as a “historic victory”. He said it upheld his country’s claim that Russian-occupied South Ossetia – or the Tskhinvali region, as he put it – was an integral part of Georgia, together with Abkhazia, another breakaway territory.
“The European court confirmed that these violations carried out by Russia amounted to ethnic cleansing of Georgians during the 2008 war,” Tsulukiani declared.
The lawyer Ben Emmerson QC, who acted for Georgia, said the court’s decision to release its findings a day after Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington was not a coincidence. Biden is set to take a tougher approach to Vladimir Putin than Donald Trump, he suggested.
“After years of delay, the ECHR seems to be finally taking a strong position against Russian human rights violations,” Emmerson said.
The Kremlin is likely to react furiously. It has argued that the court is biased and politicised. It accused Saakashvili of starting the conflict and said its role was that of an honest peacekeeper. The court on Thursday instructed both sides to make submissions about reparations.
Putin’s response could be consequential. In 2015, Moscow said it was on the brink of withdrawing from the European court of human rights, which has found against the Russian state on numerous occasions.
In a separate case last week judges ruled that Russia unlawfully annexed Crimea in 2014 and that the peninsula remains sovereign Ukrainian territory. In an interim finding they said there was prima facie evidence that Moscow had violated the rights of ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea, with enforced disappearances and torture.
In its submission, the Georgian government said Russian planes carried out more than 100 attacks on Georgian targets over five days. There was overwhelming proof that Russian bombs were dropped on civilian areas, killing and injuring innocent people, it added. The evidence included witness statements, satellite footage, and video and phone intercepts.
Before and after a ceasefire, Russian soldiers entered ethnic Georgian villages, sealing off entrances and exits, it alleged. Ossetian forces and other irregular soldiers then systematically burned down Georgian homes and entire villages, he said, adding that they carried out summary executions and threatened individuals with death if they refused to leave.
Georgia took its claim to Strasbourg the day after the hostilities stopped. In a hearing in 2018, Emmerson told the judges: “It is an open secret that Russia has been lobbying in public and in private for a favourable outcome, mumbling dark threats that it will de-ratify the European convention on human rights and starve the court of funding if the case goes against it.
“There is no middle ground in adjudicating this case. The evidence is all one way.”
More than 30 witnesses gave evidence. Their testimony covered the war’s most gruesome episodes: the alleged ethnic cleansing of 20,000 Georgian villagers living in or adjacent to South Ossetia, who were driven and burned out of their homes, a deadly rocket attack on the town of Gori, and the torture of prisoners.
An Iskander SS-26 rocket exploded in Gori’s central square on 12 August 2008, killing a Dutch journalist, Stan Storimans, and 11 other civilians, the court heard. Cluster marks at the scene and shrapnel recovered from the journalist’s body identified the rocket as Russian.
However, Russian military officials who gave evidence denied an attack had taken place. Instead, they suggested Georgia’s evidence was fake, or that the Georgian army had bombed its own people to falsely implicate Moscow.