Mikheil Saakashvili spoke those words in 2003 before the Rose Revolution. the President was reminded of those words on 18 September 2012. On that day, shocking video recordings were released which showed the violent treatment of prisoners at the Gldani No8 penitentiary. Graphic scenes of prisoners being beaten, tortured and raped by a group of prison guards were viewed on national television by a horrified population. One of the victims shown in the video footage was a juvenile.
What we saw was far worse than any civilized person could have imagined. However, we have been aware of problems in the penitentiary system for quite a while now.
Each year, for years, the Human Rights Ombudsman (Public Defender) wrote in his annual report that inmates were being tortured and beaten in prisons. Since it opened, the Gldani prison has figured prominently in those reports. The Ombudsman even named in his reports some of the same people seen abusing prisoners in the video footage. Regretfully, no one heeded those warnings. Year after year, those reports detailing prison abuses were presented to Members of Parliament in a half-empty hall.
It has been obvious since the Rose Revolution that the government is firmly committed to eliminating crime in the country and to installing order in prisons at whatever cost. The rights of prisoners were never its focus. The Chairman of the National Security Council now describes that attitude as a “grave mistake.”
What the Human Rights Ombudsman tried for years to achieve was achieved in a single evening with the released video footage.
The government was slapped awake.
Several months ago, the President bragged about exemplary management of the penitentiary system and boasted that employees of the French penitentiary system had studied prison management from our “jailors.” After seeing the graphic scenes, he started speaking instead about the “failure of the system.”
The Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance and the Head of Penitentiary Department immediately stepped down after the video recordings were released. More than ten employees of the penitentiary system were quickly rounded up and detained. The Minister of Internal Affairs tendered his resignation two days later. And none other than the Human Rights Ombudsman himself was put in chargeof the whole penitentiary system.
“I am appointing the most ardent critic of this system as its head,” the President said on 20 September in announcing the appointment of Ombudsman Giorgi Tugushi as the new Minister of Corrections, Probation and Legal Assistance for Georgia.
To its credit, the top political leadership is accepting full responsibility for what happened. It is now its duty to assess what has happened; to ensure that offenders are punished, and to undertake whatever changes are necessary to prevent anything of this sort from ever happening again. Prisoners, no matter what their crimes, are entrusted to the care of the Georgian state and the government is obliged to defend their rights. That the government did not or would not do that before was undeniably wrong. Its inaction not only enabled unconscionable prisoner abuses to continue, it has also harmed, unjustifiably, those employees of the penitentiary system who have performed their tasks perfectly well and are blameless in the scandal.
Clearly, no one will be able to escape whatever responsibility they have for what happened. But the main criterion by which the leadership of the country will ultimately be assessed is not the failure itself but how the government manages to cope with the fallout.
The 20 September resignation of Minister of Internal Affairs Bacho Akhalaia was one indication that the government is determined to contain the fallout. In stepping down, the Minister took “moral and political responsibility” for not eradicating the problem. His resignation followed an outcry from various civil society organizations that the dismissal of the prisons minister was not sufficient and that Akhalaia should be held accountable too. Even though Akhalaia served as the Minister of Corrections from 2005 to 2008, for many he is associated with the “installation of order” in the prison system. As for newly dismissed Minister of Corrections Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, she never left an impression that she controlled the situation within the penitentiary system.
By naming Giorgi Tugushi as the new Corrections Minister, the President clearly signaled that he intends to fix the problem with nothing less than a sweeping overhaul of the whole penitentiary system. The President ordered the mass dismissal of penitentiary employees and assigned the patrol police to man the prisons temporarily. Even before Tugushi was put in charge, the President has tasked the Prime Minister with controlling the situation.Public dissatisfaction has been raised as well about the Chief Prosecutor’s handling of repeated applications from the Ombudsman’s Office concerning alleged human rights violations in the prisons. But the process of investigations was protracted and not brought to an end. For example, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, in 2011 investigations launched into twenty-nine cases of alleged torture and inhumane treatment resulted in only two court convictions.
The President has also talked about strengthening the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Public Defender) with material and human resources. Increased personnel and funding alone will not be sufficient; the capacity of that institution also needs to be enhanced.
The government should further consider paying compensatory moral damages to those prisoners who were so savagely victimized by barbarians acting in the name of the state.
In parallel, an independent system of civil monitoring should be established. That is important because of the extremely high risk of abuse of power in closed institutions, especially in countries which lack a tradition of supremacy of law and strong institutions.
It is shameful that it took shock therapy to wake up the government and a large segment of the society. No matter what the intentions were of those who released those video recordings just days ahead of the parliamentary elections, they have done all of us a great service. Whatever political price the ruling party may have to pay, and for good reason, it is a small price to pay to open the government’s eyes to what it needs to do to stop any and all human rights violations in Georgia’s penitentiary system.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 115, published 24 September 2012.