Whatever people say about Georgia, this country is becoming increasingly more like a regular democratic state. It sounds ironic, but another example of the positive changes is a scandal caused by the leaking of shocking videos of beatings and physical tortures in one of Tbilisi jails.
It should be pointed out that the first bits of the video of cruel treatment of prisoners in Gldani detention facility in Tbilisi were spread by Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs on Tuesday, September 18. At that, the MIA warned that it was not a full version of the video, since “the rest is not acceptable for public viewing.” However, in a few hours, Georgian TV channels Maestro and Channel 9 broadcast even more shocking episodes of beatings and rape.
After the video was aired, thousands of people went out into the streets to protest in Tbilisi and other big cities: Kutaisi, Zugdidi, and Batumi. Mass protest actions continued the next morning.
And what is the Georgian government trying to do? Are they trying to pretend that nothing has happened, as it often happens in post-Soviet countries, or do they start persecuting the authors of the video? No. Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance, filed for resignation the next day. She admitted that she was “trying to do her best to protect human rights, and to bring the penal system as close to the European standard as possible, but obviously, those efforts were not enough, as we can see, and I am deeply sorry for that.”
Meanwhile, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili acts in a manner, typical for him. He called the things captured on that video a “systemic defeat” and charged the former head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili with reforming the penitentiary system in Georgia. Saakashvili ordered to withdraw staff from prisons and temporarily replace them with police patrols, “especially in problem prisons,” and include ombudsman’s representatives there too. According to him, “zero tolerance” for human rights violations should be declared. “We cannot open the prison doors, as it was done in the 1990s, but the doors must be transparent. We are building a civilized, humane country, and not just some discipline based on violence,” said the head of Georgian state.
The Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia does not stand idle either. It says in its statement, at this stage, 10 people, suspected of tortures, humiliation, and brutal treatment of prisoners, are now under arrest. Also, the investigation is carried out in order to identify other perpetrators. Among the detainees are representatives of prison staff of different ranks, as well as the deputy chairman of the corrections department. The Prosecutor’s Office states that charges were brought against the former prison inspector on duty in his absence, and he is wanted by the police.
Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said earlier that the staff of Prison No. 8 had received an offer from one of the prisoners to set up the beating, film it, and give the video to a client for a cash reward.
On his part David Bakradze, chairman of the legislature, said that the National Movement’s first initiative in the new parliament would be the creation of a commission on reforming the penitentiary system. According to him, the commission will work jointly with NGOs and the ombudsman’s office. Bakradze noted that the commission would work to make this system transparent, answer the public’s questions, and exclude the possibility of such crimes happening again.
Meanwhile, the lawyer of Shalva Shavgulidze, candidate in the parliamentary elections from Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition bloc Georgian Dream, said that he had known about cases of humiliating treatment in Georgian prisons, but this video of beatings and rapes of inmates “exceeds all limits.”
“This is not a one-time fact, and this is important. We saw that it was happening systematically. And this indicates not only that those who directly committed the crime or acted as accomplices have to be brought to justice. The question of political responsibility in relation to high-ranking political officials should be brought up too,” BBC quoted Shavgulidze as saying.
Meanwhile, Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, made the following statement during his meeting with local people in Dusheti: “Do not be in a hurry, the election is close, do not use violence, do not cause disturbances or hold unauthorized meetings on the streets under any circumstances, do not let your emotions take control.”
The leader of the Labor Party Shalva Natelashvili blames Saakashvili and Ivanishvili for the tortures of inmates. According to him, torturing and murdering of prisoners in Georgian jails have been going on for decades, and this system has two creators: Saakashvili and Ivanishvili, who now try to score some political points on account of prisoners’ sufferings.
The Day asked Channel PIK’s reporter, one of the leaders of the central coalition “For European Georgia” Misha TAVKHELIDZE to assess the government’s actions after the publication of the video, and say if its leaking on the eve of the election was a mere coincidence, or was done on purpose.
“We do not yet have enough data to make definite statements. But in any case, the timing of appearance of this footage is suspicious. Besides, the video was made way earlier than August 2012. The opposition channel has had this video for a year. And they held it back to organize a scandal two weeks before the election.
“But on the other hand, no matter when this video was released and what the motives were behind this, its publishing is actually very revealing and important. As it turns out, the Georgia of today is a more or less normal state, where a publication like this brings about changes. The minister was dismissed immediately, within 12 hours, and those suspected of cruelties were immediately arrested. And this is not the end to it. Yet the main thing is that the president demanded that the entire penitentiary system be reformed. To prevent anything similar from occurring, all the staff of this service were dismissed the very next day. You must have heard of the reform in Georgia’s police. Now there is reform number two, this time of the correction system.
“I find it very important that exactly such response followed, because a decade or so ago leaking of similar videos here would have certainly caused protests, but nothing would have changed. Now it is a certain event. In my view, over the recent decade Georgia has become a better state.”
What can you say about the opposition’s part in this scandal?
“It is clear that the opposition Georgian Dream party will squeeze everything of it. Let alone the fact that it is suspected of having masterminded this scandal and ordered this video.”
Will this prison incident have an impact on the October 1 parliamentary elections result?
“It is hard to make forecasts. It is difficult to assess the degree of impact this situation has made on the voters. Most likely, the tendency will not change, and the distribution of forces will not be altered, at the end of The Day. At the moment the United National Movement is leading, followed by the Georgian Dream and then, by smaller opposition parties. To me it seems that televising this video will not seriously affect the situation.”
How does Georgia accept international reaction to this scandal, in particular, on the part of the USA and Europe, and the absence of response from Russia?
“Russia’s silence comes as no surprise. Similar videos are published there virtually every day, and nothing changes. Therefore, the last thing Putin needs would be an example of how Georgia’s public and government react to similar revelations. As far as Europe is concerned, and the West as a whole, I find their reaction quite adequate. Our government’s response to this situation even surpassed the West’s expectations. It was an absolutely normal response of quite a Western-style democracy – which was actually reflected in the statements made by the US and EU embassies.”
Which forces do the protesters represent?
“In fact, these videos were shocking. It is very hard to watch them. The opposition channel showed them without any editing, so people were in a state of shock for days. Some even had fits of hysteria. The protesters were ordinary people, mostly those who do not support the government. But at the moment there are no reasons to believe that they were exclusively oppositionists.”
Weren’t Saakashvili’s words (he had called the atrocities against inmates, shown in the videos, a “systemic defeat”) an overstatement?
“Maybe they were. I do not think that the publishing of these videos means that the entire Georgian experiment can be deemed as failure. This is not so. Saakashvili’s comment shows that he had taken this close to heart and, consequently, he was so angry that he said what he said. By and large, this is the government’s big mistake, because over the past couple of years there had been constant reports of strange things going on in prisons, reports of violence. The People’s Defender wrote about this in his reports, yet nothing changed either in the ministry, responsible for the penitentiary system, or elsewhere. The government admitted to this mistake when it said that it had overlooked it, and that violence is inacceptable, and also regretted the fact that people had suffered. This very response, when the government admits its fault seeing the outrage in prisons, and reacts correspondingly, is a good sign by itself. We should hope that the situation will be radically improved.”