Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Shocking Police Abuse Videos in Georgia
Georgian interior minister Irakli Garibashvili. (Photo: Minister's official Facebook page)
A number of past and serving police officers in Georgia have been arrested after a secret stash of videos was found showing torture and rape in custody. A decision to show that material at a screening has raised serious ethical issues, and some see it as a move by the current government to discredit its predecessor.
The Georgian interior ministry held a closed screening for journalists, civil society activists and experts on June 20, showing them footage that had been found at a location in the west of the country a few days earlier. Police said they had already shown the films to foreign diplomats.
Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili warned members of the invited audience that they might find the images disturbing, and asked them not to publicise details of what they saw.
The minister said the films were made in 2011 and showed the torture of men in custody. The victims’ faces of the men were obscured, and the sound was not played. According to Garibashvili, one video showed a detainee being forced to confess to organising terrorist acts, while another showed a man being raped so that he could be blackmailed.
“This was not a localised problem. It was a systemic problem. That is what the regime was like, and that is what its police were like,” Garibashvili said.
At the time, the government was controlled by the United National Movement, UNM, the party of President Mikheil Saakashvili. The UNM was defeated by the Georgian Dream coalition in a parliamentary election held in October 2012. Georgian Dream is now in power and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is prime minister.
The interior ministry said the cache in which the films were found also contained guns, explosives, communications equipment and drugs, and appeared to be intended for use against political opponents of the UNM administration.
“During the search, an archive of photographs was found, along with the personal details of people critical of the then government,” the ministry statement said. “These individuals were going to be arrested on false charges once the National Movement won [election] victory.”
Since the films were unearthed, nine people have been arrested, including three serving police officers. Three former senior officials in the interior ministry have been put on the wanted list as they are abroad.
Garibashvili said the public in Georgia deserved to know who was responsible for the abuses. He pointed out that at the time the video footage was made, Vano Merabishvili held the post of interior minister.
In July 2012, Merabishvili was made prime minister, a post he held until the October election. He was arrested this May on charges of corruption and abuse of office. (See Saakashvili Ally Arrested in Georgia.)
Although he is currently in detention, he commented on the video revelations in a statement on his Facebook page on June 24.
“I have always thought that for the rest of my life, I would take pride in the reforms that were carried out during my years as minister… but if the information circulated recently is confirmed and police officers did take part in torturing people, that places my success in doubt,” he said. “I want to apologise to all the people who were victims of this inhuman behaviour on the part of the police in my time as minister… I will demonstrate that I had no connection to these events.”
Saakashvili, who remains president until an election this autumn, said that if the images were genuine, those involved in torture must be punished with the full force of the law.
“In recent years, the police have changed and there is no doubt that the situation has greatly improved overall,” he said. “But there can always be islands of filth and misery. There can always be sadist and rapists. Of course I am very sorry that such people got in there during my time in power. They must not be sheltered.”
Human rights groups regularly criticised the UNM government for the state of the prisons, and a leak of similar video footage of prison abuse played a major part in the party’s election reverse. (See Georgian Fury at Prison Torture on that case.)
Some of the NGO representatives and journalists felt so uneasy about being asked to watch people being subjected to brutality that they walked out of the screening.
Among them was Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International – Georgia, who said, “We must all think about the people in those films. We must consider how they will feel when they find out that 100 journalists and NGO activists have sat and watched all this. I think it’s unethically at the very least. I don’t know what the aim of showing these films was.”
Those present at the screening discussed whether the films should be shown on national television, with a majority arguing that they should not.
David Mchledidze, editor of the media.ge website, said the films should be destroyed.
“I don’t understand why this screening was necessary. I understand even less when people say these films should be shown to the general public,” he said. People already know these things happened, if only because of the films that were shown last September.”
Aleko Tskhitishvili, head of the Human Rights Centre, raised concerns that the new government has begun to follow the methods of its predecessor, which regularly showed footage of people being arrested or crimes being committed.
“As long as the investigation has still not been completed, it is unjustifiable to show these images just to score political points, arouse public indignation and widen the political divisions,” he said.
By contrast, Shalva Ramishvili, a well-known television presenter who spent time behind bars when the UNM was in power, stressed the importance of acknowledging torture as a systemic problem.
“Media outlets loyal to Saakashvili’s government need to see what they were supporting all those years,” Ramishvili said. “Secondly, the sceptics need to know that it isn’t a myth and that these images really do exist.”
Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Rustavi-2 broadcasting company.
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