The death of a prisoner in Medical Establishment #18 for prisoners in Tbilisi on 1 May has triggered an investigation by the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia and once again has focused intense attention on conditions in the penitentiary system.
The official probe was launched after the family of prisoner Zurab Delianidze alleged that he had been tortured and media released photos showing what appeared to be injuries on his body. Delianidze, who was serving a six-year sentence, had been transferred from the Batumi jail in March 2012 for treatment at the Medical Establishment #18 for Convicts in Tbilisi. Although an independent forensic examination has ruled out torture, the prisoner’s death still raises much suspicion and many questions.
The Ministry of Corrections, Probation and Legal Assistance has named “acute form of venereal disease” as the official cause of death for the thirty-nine-year-old Delianidze. That finding has been disputed by members of the prisoner’s family, who insist that he was in good health at the time of his arrest in November 2011 on charges of buying and concealing marijuana.
At the request of the family, Delianidze’s body was examined by Aleksandre Gejadze, an independent expert and director of the forensic expertise bureau Vector. The forensic expert concluded that Delianidze’s death was the result of illness and that markings on the body which the family had regarded as evidence of torture were, in fact, bedsores caused by a lack of attention and proper care. Some experts say that such bedsores may develop if a person is left motionless for two to three weeks.
Sketchy information provided by official sources sheds light on only some fragments of the picture with it now up to prosecution authorities to figure out the rest. Among questions that require answers: whether the prisoner was subjected to manhandling; how timely was his illness diagnosed; did he receive adequate treatment and medical care? A major problem within the penitentiary system has been its failure to diagnose prisoners’ illnesses before they progress to the point that any medical care is rendered ineffective.
Apart from the fact that the mortality rate of prisoners in Medical Establishment #18 is high and the quality of treatment is poor – most of the one-hundred-and-forty prisoner deaths reported in the penitentiary system in 2011 occurred in this facility – the practice of manhandling prisoners is not strange to that penitentiary facility either. Conditions in the Medical Establishment #18 were reviewed in the 2011 annual report of the Public Defender of Georgia, which detailed prisoners’ complaints about an overly severe regime there that made them reluctant to return to the facility when they needed follow-up treatment and often prompted diseased prisoners to leave the medical facility upon their personal application. Prisoners also often refused to walk outside in the prison yard in order to avoid conflict and named specific individuals who mistreated and beat prisoners. In the past, an issue of the responsibility of several doctors was also raised.
Whether Delianidze’s death was caused by inadequate medical treatment has yet to be determined. In general, monitoring conducted at various times has revealed a great many problems with the health care provided by the penitentiary system, including spread of tuberculosis and viral hepatitis, lack of resources or will to improve conditions in prison medical facilities. Cases of delayed transfers of prisoners to medical facilities for treatment and the use of less effective forms of medication have also been observed. Moreover, because of a shortage of specialists, prison doctors have had to perform medical procedures for which they were not licensed — and so on and so forth.
Deputy Minister of Corrections, Probation and Legal Assistance Giorgi Arsoshvili provided the following chronology of events leading up to the prisoner’s death: Zurab Delianidze initially underwent a primary medical examination at the Batumi prison which did not detect any disease at that time. Sometime after, Delianidze showed some sign of mental disorder and, from that time on, received medical treatment. When the prisoner repeatedly refused to take his medication, he was transferred to the Medical Establishment #18 for Convicts. At the Tbilisi prison medical facility, Delianidze underwent an additional examination and had a consultation with a psychiatrist. He was also examined by a dermatovenerologist, who diagnosed the prisoner with a complicated form of latent venereal disease with an incubation period of anywhere from three months to six years. According to Deputy Minister Arsoshvili, the prisoner was thereafter under the constant supervision of both the psychiatrist and the dermatovenerologist, but the disease “developed in a bad way” and the prisoner died.
The official investigation into the prisoner’s death is being monitored by the Public Defender’s Office. Representatives of the Office have met with members of the Delianidze family and plan to study the issue more thoroughly after receiving requested documentation. Natia Imnadze, the Head of the Preventive and Monitoring Department of the Public Defender’s Office, said that an application has been made for the release of Delianidze’s prison records, including the information concerning his medical treatment. The Public Defender’s Office also has asked the State Regulatory Agency for Medical Activities to look into the incident.
The only information that Tabula has received from the Prosecutor’s Office in response to inquiries is that prosecution authorities will wait for the results of a forensic examination and the conclusion it draws. The record of the Prosecutor’s Office in this area is interesting. According to its 2011 annual report, the Public Defender has repeatedly applied to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia to investigate specific incidents of inappropriate treatment of prisoners, but the resultant investigations have been either overly protracted or prematurely terminated. According to the Public Defender, in the past two years only one case involving mistreatment of prisoners ended in the arrests of employees of the penitentiary system.
No official statistics are available concerning the number of criminal cases instituted in 2011 involving torture, the threat of torture, degrading and inhuman treatment, abuse of power or the excessive use of power. The Public Defender’s Office has asked specifically for statistics on the number of preliminary investigations that have been initiated in such cases; the number of individuals against whom such criminal prosecutions were instituted; how many of those individuals were public servants and for which agencies they worked; how many of those cases were heard on the merits in court; how many plea bargains were concluded in those cases; and how many investigations were terminated and on what grounds.
In response, the Public Defender’s Office has received incomplete information from the Prosecutor’s Office. For example, the information received does not identify how many public servants were among those prosecuted. Nor does the information show whether public servants were punished because of the mistreatment of detainees or for some other breach of their official responsibilities. The response from the Prosecutor’s Office also does not indicate if any of those punished worked at state agencies.
Overall, in 2011, investigations were launched into twenty cases of alleged torture with prosecutions initiated against three of the suspects in those cases. There were no investigations of cases involving the threat of torture. Investigations were started in nine cases involving allegations of degrading and inhuman treatment with only one of those ending in criminal punishment. Seventy-eight persons were convicted of abuse of power and thirty-two persons convicted for excessive use of power.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 100, published 14 May 2012.