A woman cries at a prison fence as she and fellow protesters demand to see their family members during a protest rally against prison abuse in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2012. Credit: Shakh Aivazov / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reservedGeorgia’s prisons once had a chilling reputation.
Former prisoners recount harrowing stories of institutionalised torture — beatings, simulated drowning, bones purposefully broken — at the hands of guards and other officials.
“[They] were beating me. They were insulting me...During torture they drowned [me] in [a] bucket full of water and threatened [me] with rape,” said one former prisoner in an anonymous testimony released by the government’s committee on human rights protection this year.
“They tore off my fingernails, damaged [my] skull, broke my leg bones, ribs, nose and teeth,” said another. “I am 43 years old, but look like an old man. I often fall down while I am walking.”
Other victims who testified in the 2016 report by the Georgian Parliament’s Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee on torture in the country from 2004-2012 described being hit on the head with the butt of a gun, a guard breaking their wrist with the heel of his boot, and being forced to give evidence under the influence of sleeping pills.
Indeed the problem was so widespread and severe that when Manfred Nowak, the UN’s then Special Rapporteur on torture visited Georgia in 2005, he said: “There is always the threat of violence in prison in a closed space...torture and prisoner abuse by prison staff was considered to be normal and even encouraged.”
Ten years later, in early 2015, the UN returned to Georgia to find a very different situation.
The prison population has been cut in half and many of the most egregious practices and punishments have effectively disappeared from the system.
“Through numerous testimonies, I found convincing evidence that the use of corporal punishment and forced confessions has been effectively abolished,” said Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez.
Mendez praised the government’s extensive “policy changes” and “radical changes in the mentality of its staff throughout the entire chain of command,” but added that its work wasn’t done, particularly in the area of promoting accountability for torture. Meanwhile, investigations that have been carried out have raised questions about "selective justice and politically motivated prosecutions," according to Human Rights Watch.
The early-to-mid 2000s was a time of unparalleled growth in Georgia’s prison population
After conducting unannounced visits to places of detention across Georgia (but not Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the country's two 'breakaway provinces') Méndez reported acceptable cell conditions, adequate provision of food and medical care and reasonable access to phone calls for prisoners with their families.
Eka Baselia is Chair of the Parliament of Georgia’s Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, which monitors human rights abuses. She says that Georgia has all but eradicated torture and systemic mistreatment. There have been “no cases during the last four years,” she said. “[In the] public defenders’ reports, not one case about torture.”
The extraordinary turnaround in Georgia’s prison system is part of the country's wider approach to improving human rights, catalysed by a change of government in 2012 and an ongoing desire in the former Soviet state for closer ties with the European Union.
A revolution then a crackdown
The early-to-mid 2000s was a time of unparalleled growth in Georgia’s prison population.
President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004 in the bloodless ‘Rose Revolution’ and won plaudits early in his presidency for anticorruption reforms. There was a drastic reduction in crime across Georgia and a successful fight against organised crime. But his 'zero-tolerance' approach to justice often led to long prison terms for petty crimes and created a “dehumanizing discourse around crime and criminals,” an Open Society Foundation report on human rights abuses in Georgia’s prisons found.
Life inside the prisons was dirty, undignified — and dangerous
By 2010, Saakashvili's drive to root out crime had propelled the tiny country of 4.5 million people to become the biggest incarcerator per capita in Europe and the fourth-biggest in the world. Life inside the prisons was dirty, undignified — and dangerous. More and more NGOs began to report on commonplace mistreatment and the culture of impunity that prevailed in the justice system.
Baselia, who was working as a criminal defence lawyer at the time, remembers the effect of the crackdown. “After that, [the] repression [started],” she said. “I remember when I met the prisoners, they [had always been tortured]. We defenders could not help [them], because this happened everywhere, it was [a] systematic problem.”
The problem was not just confined to prisons. The human rights committee’s report, which looked at testimonies from 400 former prisoners, found evidence that mistreatment in police custody was commonplace, including the use of harsh treatment to obtain evidence and the extraction of confessions under duress in pre-trial detention.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, support appeared to come from high-ranking officials — torture was used to create as a “tool of political persecution” and to create “fear and a sense of insecurity” in society.
The explicit videos showed inmates being kicked and beaten by guards
Video that shook a government
On 18 September 2012, video footage emerged that showed prisoners being abused by staff at Gldani Prison in the suburbs of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The explicit videos showed inmates being kicked and beaten by guards, including one man crying out as he was sodomised with a broom.
The footage was broadcast that evening on opposition TV station TV9. It triggered outrage and mass protests on the streets of Tbilisi just two weeks before hotly contested parliamentary elections in which Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement Party was facing tough competition from opposition coalition Georgian Dream.
Shortly after the footage emerged, prison minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze resigned and Saakashvili condemned the abuse, announcing that he had suspended the country’s entire prison staff (although inmates reported that they were back working not long after).
Saakashvili addressed the nation, saying: “I tell the victims of these inhuman actions and the whole nation that the Georgia we have built and we are all building together shall not and will not tolerate such behavior — in its prisons or anywhere else."
Nevertheless, his party was defeated at the elections and the power shift gave reformers the window they needed to start tackling human rights. (Saakashvili left office in 2013 after two terms, constitutionally barred from running a third time.)
Shortly after the change of government, over three months in 2012, Georgia’s government released around half the country’s 24,000-strong prison population in an amnesty. Today, Georgia ranks 96th in the world for prison population per capita.
A guarantee for everybody
The main problem in Georgia before 2012 “was a violation of a human rights,” Baselia said.
In the years since, the government has adopted a 7-year action plan on human rights, including recommendations for new human rights standards protected by the law. Fuelled by Baselia's passion for change and oversight by civil society organisations, the government is now building a system that will "guarantee for everybody in our society” that the same systematic violence and torture never happens again.
Improvements have also been made to the way the parliament works to allow greater scrutiny of how the government is putting into effect international human rights standards
Part of that process involved Baselia’s committee spending two years investigating systematic violence in Georgia, looking particularly at the judicial system. Their findings and recommendations spurred legislative changes, particularly in creating stricter penalties for certain kinds of torture.
Improvements have also been made to the way the parliament works to allow greater scrutiny of how the government is putting into effect international human rights standards — for example, how effectively, if at all, it is implementing UN recommendations and judgements by the European Court of Human Rights.
Boris Nadiradze, country representative in Georgia for Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which has been supporting the committee’s work over the past few years, said: “These are very important changes.”
But Georgia has many scars from its past: The country has yet to fully investigate torture before 2012 and hold those responsible for it accountable.
The Chief Prosecutor's Office says it is making inroads and had, at last count, started 191 prosecutions including 124 against public servants from that period, "including high-ranking officials." So far 81 people have been sentenced. The UN wants to see more: “Much more needs to be done to promote accountability for torture and ill-treatment, and fulfil the right of reparations for victims,” Méndez said in 2015. The Chief Prosecutor's Office reports that it will shortly open some new cases.
But questions remain around politically motivated prosecutions. In late 2015, the former mayor of Tbilisi, Giorgi Ugulava, a political ally of Saakashvili was put behind bars in a case that one journalist who has covered the former Soviet Union for over a decade described as showing "several signs of blatant politicisation" including "pressure on the judges, procedural mistakes and hesitations resulting in a very dubious sentence of four and a half years imprisonment."
There is hope, despite a complex political landscape, that Georgia's torture victims will eventually see justice for the crimes committed against them.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.