THE HAGUE Georgia accused Russia of committing human rights violations against ethnic Georgians in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in hearings before the U.N's highest court on Monday.
"Georgia is appearing before the principal judicial organization of the United Nations at a time of great distress in its history, a time when hundreds of thousands of its nationals are persecuted and displaced from their homes only because they are Georgians," Georgian First Deputy of Justice Tina Burjaliani told the court in a calm, but emotional plea on the first day of hearings.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), or world court for disputes between nations, is holding three days of emergency hearings after Georgia demanded that Russia ensure that no ethnic Georgians or any other persons are "subject to violent or coercive acts of racial discrimination, including ... death or bodily harm, hostage-taking and unlawful detention".
In earlier written documents lodged with the court and at Monday's oral proceedings Georgia stressed the urgency of the matter.
"Without action now there is no relief that the court can order in its judgment ... that could or would adequately repair the damage to these rights (under the convention)," Georgia's lawyer Paul Reichler said.
"Killings, beatings and physical injuries cannot be uninflicted."
As expected by legal experts, however, Russia's defence focused on the jurisdiction of the court as it called into question the basis of Georgia's case, in which it alleges Russia violated a 1965 anti-discrimination convention during three interventions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 1990 to August 2008.
Russia's lawyer Alain Pellet called on the court to accept that it has no jurisdiction and decide against ordering provisional measures, adding that it should abandon the case altogether.
But the director of Russia's legal department at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Roman Kolodkin, also said Russia is in favor of a step-by-step acceptance of the court's jurisdiction on various international treaties.
He added that if there is a dispute, there is a dispute over issues such as "the legality of the use of force".
Held at the Peace Palace in The Hague and under the light of four large stained glass windows depicting the progression of justice throughout history, Georgia had outlined its case in the first session on Monday morning, while Russia presented its arguments in an afternoon session.
Hearings will follow on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The court hearings in The Hague began as French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Russia on Monday to comply with a ceasefire agreement which Western governments say obliges Moscow to pull out troops that are still deep inside Georgia.
But Kolodkin said Russia's military presence in the area will only be "further curtailed" when an international peacekeeping presence is in place.
During a brief war with Georgia last month, Moscow drew Western condemnation by sending its forces beyond the disputed area into Georgia proper. It later recognized the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Georgia's Burjaliani told the court about 450,000 Georgians had been expelled from their homes to seek refuge elsewhere in Georgia and that 150,000 of these had been forcibly displaced in the past month by Russian forces and separatist militias under their control.
But Russia's delegation countered, accusing Georgia that its attack on South Ossetia in August triggered the hostilities and that Russia had no option but to send in military reinforcements to its peacekeepers in the area.
Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands, Kirill Gevorgian, also told reporters: "The issue of racial discrimination … by Russia of Georgians in the territories of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia is, from the sense of logic, of history and of legal issues, nonsense".
If the court decides it has jurisdiction to hear the case, a provisional order or injunction could be issued within weeks. Court rulings, including provisional orders, are binding, but a ruling on the merits of the case proper is not expected for at least a year.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)