Tabula interviewed Giorgi Tugushi, the Human Rights Ombudsman (Public Defender) of Georgia, shortly before he was appointed by the President to lead a major overhaul of the penitentiary system as the new Minister of Corrections, Probation and Legal Assistance. In the following interview, he talks about the video recordings released on 18 September which provide graphic documentation of the torture of prisoners and also discusses human rights abuses in the penitentiary system which until now have gone unpunished.
From the Ombudsman’s human rights reports we have been aware that the Gldani Prison No 8 was especially problematic in terms of violations of prisoners’ rights, but what we watched on 18 September has far exceeded what we expected. Have prisoners spoken to your representatives, when they were conducting monitoring, about violations such as, for example, rape?
Those who have been treated like that probably refrained from talking about those incidents, not only with our representatives but also with others. Some might have told that to their defense lawyers on the condition of confidentiality, but no information or complaint about facts of rape have been received from prisoners. Even more, the information about a fact of mere beating was difficult to receive from the Gldani facility, as well as to document any other type of ill-treatment. In our reports, we have limited ourselves to communicating information. We did not have facts that could be officially substantiated with evidence by inmates. It seems that they avoided making official statements about such incidents. This is the first time when we have received reliable information and have become witnesses to a number of human rights violations. Although, as it looks, it has been long now since they were filmed.
Can we consequently assume that the same happens in other penitentiary facilities too and that it is not known?
I would find it difficult to assert that similar things have not happened in other facilities. However, I can refer to results of earlier monitoring. The most problematic for me was the Gldani No8 Establishment, Kutaisi No2 Establishment and No18 Medical Establishment for pre-trial and convicted inmates. Serious incidents were observed at the Ksani No15 Establishment as well. As regards other prison facilities, there could be separate allegations. But the systemic problem was, first and foremost, characteristic for the Gldani Establishment.
People who were detained for their participation in those incidents that were filmed were named in your reports, but no reaction followed. What levers exist to ensure that the Ombudsman’s recommendations are fulfilled?
You are right. Some of those people – for instance, [Head of Regime Department of No8 Prison] Oleg Patsatsia and others – are mentioned by [first] names and/or surnames in the reports for the years 2010 and 2011, though no proper reaction followed on the part of investigative bodies. That is one of the fundamental reasons that led us to the situation we have now. The impunity syndrome was ingrained deep in these people. I have repeatedly stated that impunity is an incentive for each and every person, especially in a closed establishment, to commit more human rights violations.
Prisoners have never officially made any statement against those people, but they named them as the most brutal violators of human rights among the penitentiary system employees. I have repeatedly spoken out loud about that but… We face this problem now because my recommendations and statements made in the past were disregarded by relevant bodies. Now these people are being punished, though had at least two people been punished earlier, we would not have witnessed this.
Is there sufficient political will to eradicate those systemic problems?
The political will is crucial. It is important for top public officials to make appropriate statements and make it clear to the society that these people have been really punished and they themselves experienced the severity of the law. That is the only way to put an end to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and instances of illegal punishment in the penitentiary system once and for all.
After the release of video footage, the Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance stepped down and persons involved in those incidents were detained. Do you consider those measures enough or do you think that the responsibility must extend to a wider spectrum?
I think more persons must be detained. These films probably do not feature all those human rights offenders who have committed similar crimes. That should also extend to other prison facilities, especially the medical establishment adjacent to the Gldani prison and the Kutaisi and Ksani establishments. That is a clear signal to everyone that it is time to raise the issue of liability of any person who, firstly, facilitated the formation of that system and, secondly, who in addition to grave offences in the past few years actually blocked the release of information from prisons.
As regards the politicization of the situation, how much will that benefit inmates in the prisons?
I have always maintained that the politicization of the issue will not bring about a positive result though I am very sure that there is a serious ground for concern among certain circles of the society. It is very difficult for anyone, having seen such facts on the video, to hide their indignation and not to express it publicly. And still I want to call on everyone to contain themselves within the legal frames. The most correct way to solve this problem is to apply legal norms and punish those people. No one must go unpunished. It is high time to cleanse the penitentiary system of those people who do not fit into any legal framework.
Do you think that the entry of Patrol Police into prisons will have an immediate effect?
It would be very difficult to find something worse than that personnel, especially those featured in video footage. I do not justify the replacement of penitentiary service with the police, but, in this case I mean, a decent penitentiary service must be built from scratch. I hope that the entry of police is a very short-term emergency measure. Officers of the Interior Ministry must stay away from the penitentiary system as soon as possible — one of the principles of international standards is that the penitentiary system must not be institutionally connected with the Interior Ministry. I hope that current employees will soon be replaced with such people who will have no inclinations toward such actions, though that will need some time.
Offending employees, including those who are not featured in those films, but who I am sure work and not only in the Gldani establishment, must be removed timely from the system. That is the key at this moment.
Was there any better solution in the current situation than the replacement with police?
Someone has to guard the prison, to control it, to maintain order and avoid disturbance there. Therefore, that is probably an emergency measure. A good thing is that the patrol police has been [assigned] there and not the criminal police. I am sure that a certain number of prison employees will stay there as well too, although it is important to replace these people timely with respectable employees of the penitentiary system, be they even inexperienced.
Will the retraining of employees of the system bring about a real result in terms of treatment of prisoners?
The penitentiary system has employees as well who, I am sure, have not been involved in such actions. Therefore, they must be identified. Creation of a professional penitentiary system is a luxury for many counties. That will take time, though should care have been taken a little earlier we would not have reached this point. In addition to the fact that these people, in general, violated human rights, the level of their training was either medium or low.
Regarding the President’s initiative about strengthening the monitoring of prisons by the Ombudsman: What does that mean and when will it start?
I assume I will discuss that topic with the President personally. That the Ombudsman will receive additional resources is a welcome development, regardless of the fact that with the resources available we have always conducted constant monitoring and performed assumed responsibilities conscientiously. There are, however, ways which will make the monitoring more effective and intensive.
I hope that our monitoring will be entirely financed from the budget as until now we have funded a certain part of it with donor assistance.
What additional powers are needed to make the activity of the Ombudsman’s Office more efficient and not limited only to providing recommendations which will be left unfulfilled?
I presented to the Parliament some requirements regarding the enhancement of powers. Some of them were met; others – no. I hope I will be able to resubmit those requirements which I had made in relation to the law. One of them was about imposing the responsibility on entities to provide substantiated answers on recommendations which they receive from the Ombudsman’s Office. A number of minor amendments to the law were to be introduced to enhance competences of the Ombudsman and facilitate its activity. Some of them were satisfied but some issues still remain.
Will the monitoring of the Gldani No 8 establishment continue in the days to come?
Of course. There is no facility whatsoever that does not need monitoring and which the Ombudsman’s representatives have not visited. Gldani will, of course, be under special intensive attention. Representatives of the Ombudsman’s Office will also visit the Ksani establishment. Everyone should feel that we spare no efforts to provide to the society reliable information about the situation in penitentiary establishments.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 115, published 24 September 2012.