Prague, 14 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The New York-headquartered group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 12 April issued a 27-page report that examines steps taken by Georgia's new leaders to address the long-standing problem of torture and ill treatment of people being held in pretrial custody.
Citing Saakashvili's promises to bring the country's legal, economic, and social standards in line with that of Europe, the HRW report concludes that the Georgian leader has failed on at least one account. Police abuse remains widespread in Georgia.
Speaking to RFE/RL from Tbilisi, HRW's South Caucasus researcher Matilda Bogner said a December fact-finding mission showed the Georgian government is obviously not doing enough to address the issue of torture.
"The government has taken some steps to reform, and it has many plans for further reforms. However, unfortunately, we've found that the steps that they have taken so far have had fairly little impact on the situation in terms of torture," Bogner said. "There remain many complaints [and] allegations of torture which have not been adequately investigated and prosecuted. There have not been many people punished for committing torture. So we've found that, unfortunately, the environment of impunity that has existed for a long time in Georgia continues at the moment -- which helps to facilitate the continuation of torture in Georgia."
HRW said Saakashvili's policies during his first 10 months in office seemed, in the words of the report, "to fuel rather than reduce abuses."
Central to Saakashvili's program when he was elected president in January 2004 was the eradication of corruption and organized crime. Since then, Georgian authorities have launched a nationwide campaign against businessmen linked to the previous administration and former state officials suspected of embezzlement, misuse of public funds, tax evasion, and other economic crimes.
But the methods used by the authorities in their fight against corruption have raised eyebrows among human rights groups, both in Georgia and abroad.
Of particular concern is the so-called "plea-bargaining system." This practice, legalized in February 2004, allows suspects to be released without trial after agreeing to pay lump sums of money equal or higher to those they allegedly embezzled.
The most striking example of plea-bargaining involves businessman Gia Jokhtaberidze, the son-in-law of ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Jokhtaberidze was detained on charges of cheating the state out of $350,000. But he paid a staggering $15 million to secure his release.
Officially, the money gathered through plea-bargaining is added to the state budget. But some observers have alleged that at least part of the money goes to extra-budgetary funds aimed at supplementing the salaries of state officials or funding army reforms.
Authorities have not responded to the claims.
The Council of Europe has criticized Georgia's plea-bargain system as incompatible with its standards. Georgia has been a council member since 1999.
In Georgia itself, many equate the system with state racketeering.
In some instances, defendants sometimes find it difficult to reach a plea-bargain agreement. The case of Sulkhan Molashvili is one such example.
Evidence suggests that plea-bargaining is widely used in cases of lesser criminal offenses, with defendants being released without trial in return for paying a fee and dropping any complaints of torture.
A former chairman of Georgia's Accounting Chamber, Molashvili was arrested in April 2004 on suspicion of corruption. A year later, he remains in pretrial custody, and says he has endured electric shocks and cigarette burns during his detention.
"My understanding is that Molashvili's family did pay a sum of money to the government," Bogner said. "However, he has not been released. Government officials told me that the sum of money, in the end, was not enough, so a plea-bargain could not be agreed upon, even though he did pay money to the state. But I don't believe that was related to [his] torture allegations as such."
HRW believes plea-bargaining is also being used to cover up allegations of police violence.
Bogner said evidence suggests the system is widely used in cases of lesser criminal offenses, with defendants being released without trial in return for paying a fee and dropping any complaints of torture.
"We've documented cases when people had been charged under the "hooliganism" section [of the Penal Code], which could have attracted a five-year penalty in prison," Bogner said. "[These people] ended up paying money to the state and agreeing to the prosecution's version of events, which did not include allegations of torture, and then they declined from pursuing their public statements about torture. It seems that the reason for their declining to sue their torturers was this offer of a plea bargain."
Rights groups say another problem stems from the growing control the Georgian executive is exerting on the judiciary. Legal reforms adopted last year have put judges under the effective authority of the Prosecutor-General's Office, thus making it impossible for them to investigate allegations of police torture.
Authorities, however, claim the situation has improved since last October, after Saakashvili pledged to launch a nationwide campaign to fight torture.
Prosecutor-General Zurab Adeishvili was among the officials attending a conference on torture prevention sponsored this week in Tbilisi by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Adeishvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 12 April that authorities are now determined to tackle police violence.
"The assessment made by international organizations for the years 2003 and 2004 was severe," Adeishvili said. "We agree with them that there were serious problems. But since [October] 2004 we've made progress and we continue to make progress this year. Everyone recognizes that."
Georgia's ombudsman Sozar Subari added that although police violence remains widespread during arrests, recent steps by the government have succeeded in reducing pretrial torture cases to "almost a minimum."
But Bogner of HRW remains circumspect. She said her organization has noted Saakashvili's promise to address police torture, but is now expecting permanent results.
"We do hear promises from the government that, within the next few months, sometime this year, we will see a clear, concrete improvement in terms of the situation of torture," Bogner said. "We're still waiting for that and I believe that until the environment of impunity is ended, until the perpetrators of torture are prosecuted, are punished, seriously punished for these very serious offenses, we're not going to see a big change in the situation."
In its report, HRW noted that only a few of the hundreds of allegations of police torture documented last year have been addressed.
Citing government statistics, the group says less than 40 cases of inhuman and degrading treatment were investigated in 2004. Of these, a half were suspended or terminated, and only five ended in court, with light sentences handed down each time. Those include the case of a police officer sentenced for beating one of his colleagues, something Bogner said cannot be considered a case of torture.