Dismal Georgian Prision Conditions and Practices, Torture and Murder
I was thinking, what the opposition "should do" is get a few thousand down to the next May 26th Independence Day Parade, get there early and stand right opposite where Saakashvili will give his speech, and throw a few "Zeig Heil's" in at appropriate moments whenever he's expecting applause. It'd be on the TV news around the world, "go viral" on YouTube, and many people would be asking just what is going on in that crazy little country now. He'd be scared to speak in public again.
Challenges in Political, Economic and Social Spheres
Since the Republic of Georgia obtained its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has faced numerous challenges in political, economic, and social spheres. Georgia, despite the high hopes and expectations that its leadership purportedly maintain for its future, has been plagued by territorial conflict, economic hardship, internally displaced persons, and a wide range of human rights violations. The purpose of this article is to explore the specific issue of human rights as they have developed since Georgian first obtained statehood. Further, it focuses more narrowly on the particular aspect of prisons and the struggles faced by a burgeoning population. Georgian prisons have been mostly documented as overcrowded, unsanitary, and centers where practice of torture continues unabated. Various NGOs active within the country and abroad have remained highly critical of prison conditions and practices, not only because they amount to violations of international agreements, most notably the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Georgia has adopted both of these documents. Furthermore, Georgia’s prison systems are in violation of Georgia’s own National Law, Article 17 of the Constitution. Consequently a concerted effort by Georgian NGOs has been put forth, such as the Human Rights Centre, and other well-intentioned organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to document abuses and call for real change. Although such efforts have persisted for two decades now, this paper will argue that the success of NGOs have been limited at best, and little systematic change is realized made in the Georgian prison system. Closer examination of NGO reports and publications buttressed with various news releases and articles will reinforce this observation. By reviewing concerns expressed by NGOs in four periods of Georgia’s history: 1991-1995, 1995-1999, 1999-2003, and 2003-2011 it is obvious that many of the same abuses and difficulties in the prison system have been resistant to change over time. The consistency of the process is reflective in the overall ineffectiveness of the NGO community to effect change. Nonetheless, some changes have been noted in the last 20 years, the prison population is greater than ever in the history of Georgia, conviction rates are higher than during the period of Stalin, 99 percent plus, and prisons in spite of claims that they are to international standards are still overcrowded, insanitary, and still characterized by systematic and illegal beatings, torture and murder. The term insanitary is used here, as generally unsanitary means that something is dirty; “insanitary” which means that it is so filthy that it’s apt to cause disease – which is more fitting to the conditions in Georgian Prisons.
It is crucial to note, before beginning an in-depth discussion, how the information used to justify the ineffectiveness of NGOs is purely anecdotal and difficult to verify based on an independent evaluation. In short, one must take the information and carefully evaluate it to make a casual inference as it does not confirm any valid measure of scientific accuracy. Hence while the data and information here will attempt to demonstrate a pattern, it fails to provide beyond any reasonable certainty many conclusions. Providing such an applied quantitative or qualitative proof within an acceptable range of measures is extremely difficult in social science research and obtaining the numbers and statistics that could accurately make definitive statements are most undoubtedly impractical at best.
Investigate Human Rights in Georigan Prisions
To begin an investigation of human rights practices in the Georgian Prison system, it is necessary to observe the early years of the country’s existence in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is important to take into consideration the severe economic and political troubles that the country faced at the time. Georgia had just obtained statehood and was amidst civil war from 1991 to 1992. It was because of the unrest and the growing pains of a fledgling democracy, the organizations were lenient in criticizing the newly evolved nation state. Not because they wanted to pull Georgia away from Russia’s grasp (i.e., one could even argue that they could and should, and it was possible to have done more in the past to identity and help to eliminate the root cause of the problems now faced. Georgia failed then and is failing now – and yet all those responsible, some with blood on their hands, still have their jobs, and not only in the prison system but the Ministry of Culture as well.
However, Amnesty International reflects on these years in the introduction to a 1996 report entitled “Georgia: Torture and Ill-Treatment”.
“[Amnesty International] acknowledges that advances have been made against a background of severe economic and political dislocation and armed hostilities in parts of the country, especially in the early years of independence.” (Amnesty International, 1996, p.1)
Despite this recognition, it remains that abuses were reported in those early years. Most notable was the concern raised by Amnesty International regarding Georgian criminal case 7493810. This case detailed 19 men who had been detained on charges ranging from illegal possession of arms to murder and terrorism; this tendency now continues with allegations of various crimes committed by journalists to politicians, from spying for foreign intelligence services to plotting overthrows of the government.
“They had been arrested between May and October of 1992 in connection with six separate incidents, including a car-bombing in June 1992 which was apparently aimed at the notorious public figure Jaba Ioseliani which resulted in the death of five bystanders.” (Amnesty International, 1994, p.1)
The report entitled “Medical Concern: conditions in detention and health concern” detailed their ill-treatment after arrest.
All the defendants in Case 7493810 allege that they were beaten following their arrest and during interrogation. Testimony from a number of the defendants describes a recurring pattern. Typically, they were arrested by armed men in civilian clothing who did not produce arrest warrants. They were beaten on the spot, on the way to the station and on arrival. The beatings continued during interrogation (Amnesty International, 1994, p.1).
The report also provides details of the specific acts of torture that the detainees endured.
“The forms of torture described by the defendants include being hung upside down, scalding with burning water, and systematic beatings resulting in fractured bones and teeth; threats to torture or murder family members were also used against the defendants” (Amnesty International, 1994, p.1).
In addition to the appalling treatment of the detainees, the pre-trial detention center (SIZO), where they were held was said to have unsuitable conditions. The report asserts:
“On average, 45-50 people are held in each cell in the men’s facility in SIZO, which equates to less than two square meters per person. Food rations consist of little more than bread and water, heating in winter is irregular and the supply of electricity is irregular. The facility is said to be vermin-ridden with rats, lice and cockroaches.” (Amnesty International, 1994, p.3)
In response to such a poor facility, the report details that
“a number of defendants are suffering serious ill health as a result of the conditions of their detention and in some cases hunger strikes have been undertaken to protest their treatment.” (Amnesty International, 1994, p.3)
The report concludes by stating that even though the 19 defendants in case 7493810 are convicted of particularly violent crimes, it in no way justifies the poor treatment that they were subjected to. As a result the document details that,
“Amnesty International is calling on the Georgian authorities to take immediate steps to improve the conditions of detention for these defendants, to provide medical attention on the basis of clinical need, to investigate all reports of ill-treatment, and to ensure that the defendants receive a trial in accordance with international standards.” (Amnesty International, 1994, p.4)
The second period to be examined is the period from August 24, 1995 (the ratification of the new Georgian Constitution) to April 27, 1999 (Georgia joins the Council of Europe). This is a significant period because the Constitution includes amendments that prohibits, torture, inhuman, brutal or degrading treatment or extreme punishment. One could make the logical connection that this would mean a new direction for Georgia in terms of human rights within its prisons. However, such a conclusion would be incorrect. Despite the new Constitution that sought to supersede that of the Soviet Era, Amnesty International reports that their approaches have,
“Largely been without substantive response, and in recent months the authorities have admitted publicly that torture continues in detention and that those responsible frequently go unpunished.” (Amnesty International, 1996a, p.3)
Despite recommendations made by Amnesty two years earlier, a report entitled, “Georgia: Summary of Amnesty International’s concerns” describes that
“Torture and ill-treatment have continued in custody, on the admission of the Georgian authorities themselves, with those responsible frequently going unpunished.” (Amnesty International, 1996b, p.1).
Moreover, it does appear that Georgia has attempted to include legislation against torture in their Constitution, albeit without real enforcement or actual accountability. It is actually stated that,
“Georgia has in place various legal procedures for the investigation of allegations of torture in custody and bringing to justice of those responsible. However, these procedures often are not implemented fully and rigorously.” (Amnesty International, 1996b, p.4)
The Amnesty report continues,
“The authorities and competent bodies of Georgia are seriously concerned about the fact that instances of torture continue in places of pre-trail detention and places where sentences are served.” (Amnesty International, 1996b, p.2).
It can be concluded that despite efforts to brush torture under the rug with legal maneuvers, no real outcomes have resulted from the Constitutional changes or the intervention of groups such as Amnesty between pre and post Georgian Constitutional periods of development.
In addition to the practices exercised in Georgian detention facilities, the conditions remained consistent even after the mentioned Constitutional changes. Amnesty International writes in October 1996,
“Conditions in penal institutions in Georgia are difficult, falling short of international standards and, if reports are accurate, amounting in themselves to ill-treatment. Conditions in pre-trial detention, where non-convicted prisoners are held, are among those said to be the most severe. Prisoners there are often held in grossly overcrowded conditions, meaning that they have to sleep in two or three shifts. Inadequate food, insanitary conditions and lack of medicines compound the problems, providing fertile ground for the spread of parasitic infections and disease: tuberculosis is said officially to have been one of the main causes of death among the 122 prisoners who died in custody in 1995.” (Amnesty International, 1996b, p.6)
Taken as a whole, when comparing the results before and after the development of the Constitution, it would appear that little has changed. Amnesty International acknowledges,
“the problems that may exist within the prison system, for example such as those caused by lack of funding for professional staff, training and infrastructure, but these problems can never be used as an excuse for torture and deliberate ill-treatment.” (Amnesty International, 1996b, p.9)
The third period of Georgia’s human rights development that should be examined is the time from Georgia’s admission to the Council of Europe to the Rose Revolution and the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze. This is a significant period because the Council of Europe represents a political organization dedicated to strengthening democracy, human rights and the rule of law throughout its member states. As a result,
“Georgia undertook to fulfill a number of commitments with specific time limits. One of these was to ratify both the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, within one year of accession.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.1)
Despite these seemingly positive developments for Georgia and human rights, it remains that in Amnesty International’s February 2000 report entitled, “Georgia: Continuing Allegations of Torture and Ill-Treatment” the problems faced before the millennium had carried over. Amnesty International reports,
“We remain greatly concerned about the continuing and persistent reports of torture and ill-treatment in Georgia, including a recent case in which a man is said to have died after a severe beating by police officers.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.1)
The NGO continues,
“It is important for Georgia to put into practice its existing obligations, domestic and international, to end both torture and impunity for its perpetrators.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.1)
One further statement most clearly identifies how any effort from Amnesty International or others has failed in recent years.
“Although some progress has been made, past admissions of problem areas by the government itself – its serious concern about torture in custody, its recognition of weaknesses in ensuring efficient and impartial investigation of complaints about torture, and the fact that those responsible frequently went unpunished – are as relevant today as when they were made in 1996, in a report to the United Nations Committee against Torture.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.2)
Specific criticism included in the 2000 report concluded that,
“Reports of how prosecutors have been reluctant to open a criminal case at all, or have closed the case for alleged lack of evidence after what appears to be a perfunctory investigation, further undermine confidence in official commitment to tackle the issue of torture. Many alleged victims also simply do not believe that their complaints will result in a rigorous, comprehensive and impartial investigation. Others are deterred from lodging complaints by a fear of reprisals, believing that any attempt on their part to bring those responsible to account – or simply to stop the ill-treatment – will only result in greater abuses against them or their relatives.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.3)
Even the recommendations in 2000 concede that torture and human rights violations have become common place. Amnesty International writes,
“There are obviously many factors involved in the issues of why torture has been such a persistent problem in Georgia, and what can be done about it. It takes time to overcome a Soviet-era mentality of policing and penal issues, and Georgia’s economy is still not sufficiently strong to provide levels of pay which would make the temptations of corruption less effective.” (Amnesty International, 2000, p.10)
Given that Georgia’s violations and challenges are considered persistent, it is clear that efforts by NGOs such as Amnesty International have been ineffective in briing about change. However, given the challenges that Georgia faced, would more time growing apart from Soviet-era mentality and more democratization make a substantial alteration to Georgia’s penal system? Unfortunately, as the next period of Georgia’s history is examined, the answer would appear to be no.
Post Rose Revolution
The last period for Georgia is from the Rose Revolution to the present, characterized by the installment of President Saakashvili. Saakashvili represented an opportunity for change in the Georgian government for most citizens and has undertaken numerous political and economic reforms. However, criticism remains as Saakashvili has been regarded as too authoritarian and he has openly stated that he will sacrifice nothing for the sake of development. At the opening of the new Radisson Hotel, Saakashvili is quoted as stating,
“There not exists development in Georgia without order. No compromise will be from our side in this issue.” (Saakashvili, 2009)
However, what does this mean for human rights and more specifically, the prison system?
It means that despite reform in nearly every aspect of life for Georgians, it has not improved in regards to the penal system. In April 2005, Human Rights watch published an article entitled “Georgia: Torture Still Goes Unpunished” which stated
“Since the Rose Revolution that brought a new government to power in 2003, the Georgian authorities have failed to end widespread torture of detainees in the criminal justice system.” (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 1)
Additionally, the article provided an example of the level of failure in accountability. It stated,
“According to the government’s own statistics, only 39 cases ‘involving elements of inhuman and degrading treatment’ were investigated in 2004, out of which 20 were suspended or terminated, and only 12 were sent on to court. Out of the five cases that had been ruled on by a court by the time the statistics were gathered, only one police officer had been sentenced to an active prison term. In this case, the police officer was accused of beating another police officer and not a detainee, making it a dubious case of torture.” (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p.2)
But what about prison conditions, what about the nature of the abuse itself? It remains sad that these elements have also survived to live in the Saakashvili era. Human Rights watch writes in a 2006 report entitled “Georgia: Prison Abuses Rife Despite Promises of Reform” that,
“Thousands of prisoners in Georgia live in inhuman and degrading conditions and many are subject to severe beatings and other ill-treatment.” (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p.1)
“Prisoners, even those held in the newly renovated prisons, receive inadequate food and substandard, if any, medical care. Many prisoners also lack access to exercise and often cannot leave their cells for weeks or months at a time.” (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p.1)
For a long time, Georgia faced difficulties with funding for positive reforms and literally couldn’t afford to change their conditions or practices. In response,
“The European Union and other donors have provided the Georgian government with substantial financing to build new prisons. But simply giving money and building new prisons isn’t going to end abuses against prisoners.” (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p.2)
Since receiving aid in 2006, abuses have only persisted at a consistent rate. Even as recent as March 2011, according to the newspaper “Georgia and World”,
Two prisoners died from torture. 31 year old Temur Petriashvili and 31 year old Malkhaz Muzashvili were declared dead. Doctors had concluded the cause of death to be illness combined with severe trauma. Irma Inashvili, a political activist, spoke publically about the incident and stated, “We have video camera recordings of the corpse of Malkhaz Muzashvili. He has very serious injuries of the body: the leg is broken; the nose is damaged, the wrist, the veins of the neck. He has obvious signs of torture.” (Gelashvili, 2011, p.1)
The article also speculated on the cause of such torture and abuse. In many cases,
“the reason for beating and torture may be the reason that the prisoner does not kiss the photo of Mikheil Saakashvili, or salute to the jailer, etc…” (Gelashvili, 2011, p.1)
Such instances have even spurred recent small scale protests which have resulted in several arrests.
“On April 4, 2011, police briefly scuffled with protesters outside the Supreme Court…” (Civil Georgia, 2011, p.1)
“The rally was organized by various opposition groups, which are campaigning for inmates' rights.” (Civil Georgia, 2011, p.1)
Conditions remain deplorale
The conditions of detainees and prisoners remain deplorable today and these protests are the clear evidence for this claim. It would continue to appear that nothing has changed since Saakashvili took power, or for the entirety of Georgia’s independence. It stands as a bright beacon that protests exist to detest the prison conditions and lack of accountability within the penal system of Georgia. Small scale Georgian NGOs such as the Human Rights Centre have taken lead roles in this capacity but have yet to make a significant impact. The challenges faced in the early nineties reflect almost identically today. Prisons are still overcrowded, still dirty, and detainees are beaten and tortured while expectations of justice remain almost non-existent. Despite a new Constitution, new ratifications of anti-torture documents, and a called elected President driven by development and Western/European values, it seems that the penal system persists as one of the oldest problems of Georgia and looks to persist for many years to come, it has become a instrument that is often used by authorities as a political instrument to threaten the populace.
Amnesty International, Initials. (1994, October). Medical concern: conditions in detention and
Amnesty International, (1996, October, a). Georgia: summary of amnesty international's
Amnesty International, (1996, October, b). Comments on the initial report submitted to the
united nations committee against torture.
Amnesty International, (2000, February). Georgia: continuing allegations of torture and ill-
Human Rights Watch, (2005, April 12). Georgia: torture still goes unpunished.
Human Rights Watch, (2006, September 13). Georgia: prison abuses rife despite promises of
Saakashvili, Mikheil. (2009, September 2). Statement of the president Saakashvili at the opening
ceremony of the Radisson hotel. Retrieved from
Gelashvili, Sopho. (2011, March 26). The prisoners are forced to kiss the photo of Saakashvili in
the prison. Georgia and World,
Protestors arrested outside Supreme Court. (2011, April 05). Civil Georgia,
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