Eka Zguladze

Eka Zguladze: Much will depend not only on the police but on the society too

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On 20 September, Eka Zguladze was appointed acting Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia after the former Minister, Bacho Akhalaia, resigned in the middle of a prison scandal and public outrage over the torture of inmates at the Gladi No 8 Establishment. Before her appointment, Zguladze had been serving as the Deputy Minister. Given the tense environment and extreme political polarization, the Interior Ministry is necessarily playing a crucial role to ensure that elections are conducted in a fair and free manner. The acting Interior Minister discussed that and other topics in this interview with Tabula conducted shortly after her appointment.

- Thank you for agreeing to this interview. The first question is related to the parliamentary elections. Within a few days, the population of Georgia has to decide for whom to vote. Considering that the society is extremely polarized, what threats do you see in connection with the election day?

Thank you for providing me with an opportunity to talk more extensively about those topics which are important for the entire society as well as for me personally. The short comments which I have been able to make in the past few days are not sufficient.

The parliamentary election is the issue which concerns me most now because, in this particular situation, it will not be easy to ensure that each and every person will be able to make their choice in a calm and peaceful environment. The police do not care who wears a T-shirt of what color or how one expresses his/her opinion unless that impedes the right of others to express their opinion. We will protect public order. I talk about that topic with the police daily. We analyze various threats in order to be prepared to the maximum extent. It would not be true to say that the environment is calm or that I do not expect any disorders or misunderstandings.

The good thing, however, is that this crisis has shown two things clearly, despite the existing polarization. The first is that the police has proved established not only as an institution but also as a system which acts independently and can work routinely in any situation – be it on ordinary days or during the pre-election period. That is central. The second is that, along with the development and reformation of police in Georgia, a large segment of the society has become law-abiding. That is a fact as well. In other words, there is a very large segment of Georgian citizens in between those polarized circles which is a supportive strength for the police.

Public order is impossible to establish by force, and I hope very much that there will be no need for that. That does not mean, however, that the police will not react to wrongdoing or deviation or any action which endangers the possibility of even a single person to express his/her choice openly and freely.

I want to say that much will depend not only on the police but on the society too.

Unfortunately, one hears calls – often made live on TV – for the mobilization of activists. Aggression is expressed in various forms. Today, information was released which added to what we had earlier learned about the possible role of thieves-in-law in the election process. That is a matter of worry for us.

- We will get back to that issue shortly. But before that, I am interested in one thing: It is clear that the police must rely on the society and that the society is the primary customer who orders in what order it wants to live. But are you undertaking other concrete measures about which you can speak publicly?

The Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] has sufficient resources to react, within the scope of law, to any challenge on election day. We will be able to react to every circumstance. I would like to stress once again that it is very important that the tension does not reach a certain limit because, after that, the police are no longer of much significance. After that, absolutely different things become important. Therefore, with just a few days left before the election, my key function is to work together with each and every police officer and also with the society in order to concentrate on the essence. We have the parliamentary election very soon, on Monday, and anyone is free to express his/her position on that day.

I want to urge everyone once again to control their activists, to prevent bottled-up emotions – whatever the reason or cause of those emotions – from creating chaos and disturbances or inciting wrongdoing. The police shall react to that in any event because we cannot allow public disorder. We must all be mobilized and calm for elections.

- Video footage was released in which, according to the MIA and Prosecutor’s Office, activists of the Georgian Dream political coalition tried to bribe policemen. We remember perfectly well a similar case in 2008 when Badri Patarktsishvili tried to collude with then-Director of MIA Special Operational Department Erekle Kodua, who was supposed to make a dramatic statement on the day of elections that he would no longer participate in rigging elections. Considering that past experience, how can we know that such an agreement has not been reached and that, say, an MIA or any other entity’s employee will not make such a statement that will incite public disorder? How much is the possibility of that type of collusion capable of being prevented?

The video footage that has been released is not the first such instance. Such an occurrence took place several months ago as well and, back then, the MIA issued a statement. There were several other facts too with which we did not go public as that was the matter of an internal investigation.

Some forty-thousand people work in the police system. The police constitute a successful and very efficient institution. I do not rule out, or to be more precise I assume, that not every one of those forty-thousand employees is perfect. To tell the truth, that is the reason why the police are so efficient. They do not revel in myths, but work as a mechanism. One part of that mechanism is that such collusion can be detected and prevented. Irrespective of whether the information comes from outside or inside, the Ministry actually succeeds in detecting such facts proactively and reacting to them accordingly.

I have said earlier, and will repeat now as well, that a police officer who takes money for the aim of disclosing confidential information, staging a detention or planting drugs on someone, or who takes money for leaving the office, will most likely not miss a chance to take money from a criminal, thief or anyone else, in any other case. Such employees must be culled from the ranks. In this particular case, a certain political party did me a favor [by identifying officers who were offered bribes].

Nor do I have any illusion that we have managed to detect absolutely every fact, although we have been working very actively. That we have been under that pressure for the past few months means that attempts [to bribe police officers] were many. However, based on internal information as well as results of an investigation into this undertaken in our entity and other facts I know, offers of such deals were rejected in the absolute majority of cases. That video footage also shows perfectly well that only one police officer agreed to the deal, while police officers in two other cases cooperated with the MIA and assisted in investigating the crime. Of course, we cannot be fully assured and I will not allow myself to claim that. There are, however, a number of protective mechanisms in place and I am confident that my employees will manage to avoid such risks.

- One often hears criticism from the political opposition that the police do not protect the rights of the opposition as equally as the rights of the ruling party and the government. How do you respond to that criticism?

In the past six years, trust in the police has been increasing. During the past three years, that trust has exceeded eighty percent – fluctuating between eighty-three-and-eighty-four percent. This indicator of trust is way higher than that of any politician or any political party in Georgia. That means that people who have trust in the police, as in the system, represent a very diverse political spectrum. I think that is very obvious, simple and clear for everyone. That does not mean that everyone likes each and every policeman – of course not. But when you are in trouble and call the police for help then that means that you trust in the police as a system.

- In the last few days, tens of opposition activists have been detained. Such detentions have happened previously as well, but in the past two or three days the number of detained opposition activists has sharply increased. What is the reason for that? Even an activist at a student protest was detained yesterday and then released this morning. Could

you explain, precisely, what has caused such a rise?

I cannot equate the students’ protest with the other incidents to which we have had to react. I will separate these two directions.

We have all felt how tense each of us and the whole society has become because of the prison crisis. Every single person directly involved in that atrocity has either been put under investigation or arrested. Those indirectly associated with that crisis have had to assume political liability. This is the response of a healthy democracy and the expression of strength on the part of the government. Unfortunately, some perceived that reaction as a weakness.

In Georgia, minor or serious violence expressed in various forms has increased all at once – such as political pressure on supporters of a rival party; in this particular case, pressure from the opposition on supporters of the ruling party, including state representatives.

Moreover, very many people instantly became affiliated with a political movement – as if that were a defensive mechanism. For example, a person who was detained today has been implicated in four different cases of theft. In the past, that person served four sentences for similar wrongdoing. Today, all of a sudden, that person appeared to be an active supporter of the Georgian Dream.

With regard to the peaceful protest of students, there have been a number of deviations from the law. We have turned a blind eye to the majority of them because we are more sensitive to students. It is their age, maybe, that they do not fully understand responsibility. That does not mean that the police will turn a blind eye to a concrete crime. Regrettably, a concrete crime was the case this time with the students as well – offence of a police officer. That detention of the student is not personal retaliation on the part of the police officer. In this case, the police officer does not defend himself; the police officer defends the uniform and that uniform is a symbol of statehood.

Such deviations from the law cannot be left unanswered because, according to our assessment, it further escalates the situation and strengthens the syndrome of impunity, which can lead to chaos.

- What would you recommend to those students who want to express their candid protest, who are angry and for good reason? Where does the line run…

I think students know where the line runs. You can voice your protest – Georgia has quite liberal legislation on assemblies and manifestations. The police’s attitude in that regard is very liberal too, often allowing more than the law prescribes. For example, we have often closed our eyes to the temporary blocking of streets. That was the case today as well when protesters marched in the middle of the road. There are some instances which the police will naturally allow. But violence, offence of a police officer or of any other person, let alone physical abuse, will not be ignored by the police. Otherwise, we should stop talking about democracy – both us and them. The motto of these students is democracy development, “a better life,” isn’t it? Public order is part of that.

- Excerpts of a report provided by French law enforcement authorities were broadcast on TV today. They deal with [former politician] Goga Khaindrava’s ties with thieves-in-law and plans to trigger unrest during elections. How far did that alleged conspiracy go? How secure can we feel in light of all these revelations? How much of that disclosure will serve as a prevention of that threat?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, every citizen of this country knows that thieves-in-law when given such an opportunity have always tried to regain their past glory in Georgia. This is not the first time when they have tried to use political processes or that political forces have tried to use people whom they consider influential, their resources and money – which naturally accompanies organized crime – to influence concrete political processes. As it has been in the past, their every attempt has remained only an attempt. That, of course, is the result of our work as well because we have never slackened our attention in this area.

Georgia is the only country in our region where thieves-in-law do not exist physically and who as an ideology have been eradicated from the society. That is something that crime bosses cannot tolerate easily because thieves-in-law make up a large family, an influential mafia which has gone beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. They are influential in Europe as well. Their business has been enhanced too. To tell the truth, they may not need Georgia at all – Georgia is too small and too poor to be of interest for their activity. It seems that it is important for them in principle because they were kicked out of the country. It seems that their return to Georgia would have some symbolic connotation for them.

One thing which has not be realized by either those criminals or those people who try to establish ties with them for political aims – or, even worse, for anti-state aims which is the case in this particular instance – is that thieves-in-law were kicked out from Georgia not by the police or the Prosecutor’s Office, but because public opinion changed.

When a political force promises a representative of organized crime that he will regain his clout, I have a question: For what purpose does that political force come to power?

- But Khaindrava is not officially a member of any political party. In this case, what would allow us to say that Khaindrava has been working under instructions of a political party?

We are able to talk about that based on materials which the French side provided. At this stage, however, I cannot comment beyond that. The investigation is being conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office and it is still underway.

- The prison scandal generated mistrust not only toward the penitentiary system but toward the criminal justice system in general. How does that system work? On what principles is it based? At what cost is public order maintained? What do you do to ensure that the police retain people’s trust?

Those questions came to everyone’s mind irrespective of where they work or whom they support. The mere fact that those questions have emerged means that we are moving in the right direction and building the right state. That is a healthy reaction to such a grave crime as the one which we all witnessed. Those scenes were appalling for all to watch.

As to the question of whether that fact damaged state institutions and, in particular, the police, let me answer this way – the police reform has not ended yet. The police will lose that high degree of trust the very moment that it thinks everything has been done and that everything is fine. That is not the case. Eight years for such major reforms, even more so for building a qualitatively new state, is not a long time. During those eight years, for example, we in the police laid the foundation. Now we have to strengthen the result, to strengthen it so that this system — under conditions of any government, under any type of management – remains loyal to the same human and democratic values and principles, but automatically. Let us admit that that is not the case today. This system is very young. Eight years is not enough time to digest good and bad, to filter down and establish a really strong institution. Establishing democratic institutions, including civil society, in reality takes quite long.

- Some six months ago, the President of Georgia said, with usual bravado, that the French came here to learn the example of our penitentiary system reform. We boast about our police reform. Can you take responsibility that nothing of the kind that took place at the Gldani No 8 Establishment happens in the pre-trial detention isolators?

Yes, I can take responsibility for that. From the day the reform of pre-trial detention isolators started, we have not slackened our attention in this area. We have conditions corresponding to international standards – decent infrastructure, new and well-trained personnel. In our entity, pre-trial detention isolators are not subordinate to the police. In other words, those who detain [the detainees] are not responsible for their wellbeing. I say that as an example illustrating that, no matter how much you trust in yourself, you must necessarily have such a safety lever in your system.

- To what is the pre-trial detention isolator subordinate?

It is subordinate to a separate division called the Human Rights Department, which is responsible for internal instructions, trainings, development of guidelines, curricula and, more importantly, round-the-clock unrestricted – planned or unplanned – monitoring of absolutely every isolator countrywide.

Moreover, we have a cooperative agreement with the Ombudsman’s institution, affiliated non-governmental organizations and international organizations which enables them to enter freely. And, to tell the truth, during the past six years we have not had a systemic problem – not only in terms of torture and ill-treatment, but also in terms of delayed access of defense lawyers, health conditions, food, basic hygienic norms, etcetera.

Thus, yes, I do take responsibility for pre-trial detention isolators and the people there. Separate isolated instances of ill-treatment may happen, but I absolutely rule that out as a systemic problem.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 116, published 1 October 2012.

 

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