Georgian prison abuse shockwave felt in Brussels

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Angry protestors marched in the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi after TV showed footage of inmates being tortured and sexually assaulted in the country’s prisons. Tensions were felt as far as Brussels where anti- and pro-government lobbying soared ahead of the bitterly contested parliamentary election scheduled for 1 October.

The footage, which was aired on an opposition television channel, shows graphic physical and sexual violence by prison guards. Euronews released a small part of the footage, avoiding the most cruel scenes.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvali vowed to punish those responsible and bring in additional police  to staff the country's prisons.

Saakashvili’s government maintained that the guards in the videos were paid to stage abuse for political reasons.

“Those who were responsible for the penitentiary system and failed to prevent such atrocities from happening will be fired. And those who committed the crimes, I promise you, will spend long years in jail,” the president said.

Majority and opposition clash in Brussels

In Brussels, the Georgian ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, said yesterday (19 September) that the country’s embassy had received threats and blamed opposition representatives living in Belgium for fuelling the tensions.

She made the statement during a public event organised by the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank, included a representative of the pro-Saakashvili camp, and a leading opposition activist.

Tedo Japaridze, representing the Georgia Dream opposition coalition, said the relatives and friends of those jailed, as well as ordinary Georgians, could not be blamed for speaking out against the abuse. Georgia has one of the world's highest rates of incarceration, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London.

Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chair of the Georgian Parliament’s Foreign relations Committee, representing the ruling United National Movement (UNM) coalition, admitted the numbers of inmates in his country is high, but said it was the result of the government's “extraordinary fight against organised crime” and that the country was now one of the safest places in the world.

Kandelaki slammed the opposition with a long list of grievances. Chief among those were accusations that the Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, had stated that it would not recognise the election results if it didn’t win. Another is that Georgian Dream has been using campaign funds that were “double the size of the Georgian budget”.

Japaridze said he was not going to reply to the attacks with counter-accusations. He said he had gone to Brussels to deliver the message that his political force was not pro-Russian, contrary to claims by Saakashvili’s camp.

“We are committed to Euro-Atlantic integration, in a  realistic way,” he said, adding that in comparison to UNM, Georgian Dream would not play “stupid geopolitical games” and as a result, Georgia would “stop being an irritant” in international affairs.

Regarding Georgia’s political system under Saakashvili, he called it “demokratura” – the rule of a nomenklatura “close to one man” which in his words makes decisions on behalf of Georgia.

Saakshvili, president since 2004, has managed to stay in power despite provoking a five-day war with Russia in August 2008, following which Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (see background).

His term of office expires in the autumn of 2013. According to the constitution, he cannot be elected for a third term.

‘Most important’ vote since ‘Rose Revolution’

The representatives of two NGOs at the debate see this year's vote as the important election since the 2003 “Rose Revolution”.

Jacqueline Hale from the Open Society institute said that accusation from both camps, that “Misha” [Saakashvili] was an autocrat and that Ivanishvili was a "Russian stooge”, were “not good”. She said there was no evidence to substantiate geopolitical accusations, and spoke in critical terms against the “rhetoric of PR agencies from both sides”.

Dennis Sammut, director of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-Building, said the most important outcome from the 1 October election would be the end of the “one-party rule” in place since 2003. “Checks and balances have been missing” in Georgia during this period, he said.

Provided the two opposite camps stick to the rules of parliamentary democracy, Sammut said that it didn’t matter if "a Saakashvili or an Ivanishvili" were to win.

“I don’t care. Any “Shvili” will do, he said amid laughs.

Tornike Gordadze, newly appointed state minister of Georgia for Euro-Atlantic integration, told journalists in Brussels on 18 September that the government had made unprecedented efforts to allow the elections to be transparent, including by inviting 70 long-term and 500 short-term international observers.

A new electoral law has been adopted and the electoral lists were now more accurate, he said.

Some 69% of the Georgians believed that the elections would be free and fair, he said, adding that according to opinion polls, a very high turnout of 77% was expected.

But Gordadze blamed the opposition for resorting to “hate speech”, for attacking the country’s institutions and for breaching the rules for campaign funding.

He also said Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili was more popular than Saakashvili, adding that since the prime minister presented himself as a candidate, the level of support for UNM had increased.

“But he’s not Medvedev,” he added, alluding to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has twice swapped positions with Vladimir Putin to suit constitutional requirements.

He also indicated that the UNM didn’t convey the message that “Misha” Saakashvili would become prime minister if his political force wins.

A spokesperson of Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and
Security Policy and Vice President of the Commission, issued the following statement:
"The High Representative is appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates
in Gldani prison. She recalls that all countries are obliged to comply with the unconditional
prohibition of any form of torture and ill-treatment. She notes that the Government has taken the
initial steps to address this matter and stresses that it is of vital importance that these and other
incidents are thoroughly and transparently investigated and that those responsible are held to
account."

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions. 

Vladimir Putin, then the prime minister of Russia, was quoted at the time by a French diplomat as saying that he wanted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hanged. 

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Saakashvili was to blame for the August war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 Rose Revolution.

  • 1 Oct.: Parliamentary elections
  • October 2013: Presidential elections

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