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Georgia: Prison Abuse Under Spotlight

Claims that prison conditions in Georgia are worse than ever.
By Vakhtang Komakhidze
The Georgian government brought to power by the “Rose Revolution” of 2003 is having its human rights credentials challenged, after new allegations that human rights abuses are rife in its crowded prisons.



The international rights organisation Human Right Watch has just published a damning report, which says that thousands of prisoners in Georgia live “in inhuman and degrading conditions” and many are subjected to severe beatings and other ill-treatment.



“The Georgian government portrays itself as fully committed to human rights and has repeatedly promised to address the ghastly conditions in its prison system,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But instead of fulfilling these promises, the authorities have taken deliberate steps to restrict fundamental rights, including the rights of those in detention.”



Earlier this year, Amnesty International also published a report that expressed concern over excessive force and torture being used by Georgian law-enforcement agencies, as well as a rise in the number of deaths among prisoners and lack of detailed information on independent investigations into these deaths.



HRW said conditions were most appalling in quarantine and punishment cells, where “there were no mattresses and only a few tattered blankets”. It mentions a case in which detainees were not allowed to take a shower, shave or receive a haircut for three months and cites a lawyer as saying that prison authorities did not provide personal hygiene items (soap, toilet paper, razors, tooth brushes, toothpaste, etc.) to detainees and did not allow relatives to deliver these items.



Nether the president, nor other high-ranking officials have made any comment on the report.



Givi Miknadze, deputy justice minister of Georgia, told IWPR some conclusions in the report were “inaccurate and based on unchecked information” and did not reflect the “very poor inheritance” that the current government had received from its predecessors.



“We understand perfectly well that the conditions in Georgian prisons are not very good,” said Miknadze, adding that three new prisons were being built to replace dilapidated and over-crowded jails.



“It is simply unfair to claim that the situation in the country’s penitentiary system has worsened after the Rose Revolution,” he said.



However, Georgian human rights defenders say the government is not doing enough. They cite the riot in Tbilisi’s prison No 5 in March, which resulted in the death of seven prisoners.



A monitoring group set up by the Georgian people’s defender (or human rights ombudsman) reported, “We visited prisoner Mikhail K. (aged 26) in cell No. 39 of prison No 1, where inmates take it in turns to sleep on 18 beds. The prisoner said that in the evening of September 6 he had been taken out to the corridor along with others prisoners and subjected to physical abuse. The other prisoners were lined up along the wall and forced to watch the beating.”



Human Rights Watch has questioned the official version of the disturbances, saying none of the prisoners were shot at in the yard of the prison or trying to escape, even though the authorities say a mass escape was planned.



One injured prisoner, who sustained five bullet wounds, said a masked man with an automatic weapon came into his cell and started shooting at the prisoners inside.



“He started to swear at us. He was alone standing in the doorway, but there were others behind him. He said to us, ‘So you want a colour television?’ And then he started to shoot. I was close to him and right in front of him and so I took the first bullets. This all happened really fast. He came in, said these words to us, and then started to shoot. He gave no warning that he would shoot. I lost consciousness. The thing is, we had a television in our room, and a few days before this happened, they wanted to take it away. We said no.”



Human Rights Watch has called on the Georgian government to hold an independent enquiry into the March events and declare a policy of zero tolerance for abuse by law enforcement agencies.



In the last two months the bad news has continued. According to official data from the Georgian justice ministry, 14 people died in the country’s prisons in August and 11 in September. The ministry has set up a special commission to investigate the high death rate.



Human rights activists have made their own enquiries. Giga Giorgadze, deputy ombudsman, said, “The wards are in a terrible sanitary state; the room temperature is so high that one cannot breathe, there’s an unpleasant smell in the wards. The walls, ceilings and floors are badly damaged. The building swarms with rodents and insects. There are so many rats in the hospital that you can always hear them gnawing at the walls.”



“Living in such conditions is as good as being tortured.”



Prisoners also complained that they were allowed outside only once a month for 30-40 minutes at a time. One of the 110 prisoners questioned by Human Right Watch said they were allowed to take outdoor exercise only once every three months - in violation of international guidelines approved by the United Nations.



The most serious problem is overcrowding. HRW estimates that the prison system currently holds 13,000 prisoners, which is far beyond its capacity.



Elene Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s human rights committee, says the overcrowding is in large part due to people being kept in pre-trial detention even for minor crimes.



“Two weeks ago I met an under-aged prisoner in Prison No 5, who was arrested for having stolen an aluminium pot lid and sentenced to two months’ pre-trial-detention,” said Tevdoradze.



“Yes, new, normal facilities have been built, however they are projected to hold a small number of prisoners, not 14,000. Conditions in our jails are terrible. In mid-August, I saw 320 prisoners sleeping on the ground under a tree in Rustavi.”



“The European Union and other donors are providing the Georgian government with substantial financing to build new prisons,” said Cartner. “But simply giving money and building new prisons isn’t going to end abuses against prisoners. The government must change its approach to the treatment of prisoners and resolve fundamental problems in the prison system.”



Vakhtang Komakhidze is director of the Reporter television studio in Tbilisi, which carries out journalistic investigations.

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