Prague, 22 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Parliamentary Assembly of the 46-member Council of Europe (PACE), has mixed feelings about Georgia's moves to improve its human rights record.
In a draft resolution made public on 16 December, PACE's monitoring committee welcomed as "encouraging" Georgia's efforts to bring its legislation in line with European democracy standards.
However, PACE said, a lot remains to be done before Georgia can fully meet its obligations and commitments before the Council of Europe.
The draft is due to be debated at the assembly's next plenary session from 23-27 January.
Among problems its authors say need to be urgently addressed are Georgia's "culture of violence and torture in
Amnesty International says that, two years into President Saakashvili's administration, torture and ill-treatment remain a major concern.
prisons and pretrial detention centers."
They also urge Georgian authorities to promptly investigate all allegations of torture and "apply a policy of zero tolerance to impunity." Accusations From Elsewhere
The Council of Europe is not alone in pointing to the persistence of torture in Georgia.
Ana Dolidze chairs Georgia's Young Lawyers Association, or GYLA, a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental group that brings together legal professionals seeking to making national legislation more protective of human rights and democracy.
She tells RFE/RL her organization recently organized a series of roundtable discussions to assess progress made this year in the field of human rights. The result, she says, is not encouraging.
"Our conclusion is that, unfortunately, torture and violence -- be it at the hands of special police forces or regular police forces -- remains widespread," Dolidze said. "Unfortunately also, these human rights violations are not properly and actively investigated by the prosecutor-general's office."
Dolidze says the few investigations that have been launched into alleged cases of torture represent an improvement over to the previous administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze. However, she said the progress was insignificant in relation to the massive efforts still made to cover up police violence.
Dolidze's assessment matches findings in a report released last month by Amnesty International (AI). In it, the London-based human rights watchdog says that, two years into President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, torture and ill-treatment remain a major concern. Shocks, Burns, Threats
The report says in order to coerce confessions from suspects, Georgian police use not only beating and kicking, but "electric shocks; putting plastic bags over the head of a detainee; suspending a detainee from a pole between two tables; cigarette and candle burns; placing the barrel of a gun in a detainee's mouth threatening to shoot; blindfolding with adhesive tape; hitting a detainee's ear with open palms; threats to beat the detainee's family; [and] gagging the detainee with a piece of cloth so [that he] cannot shout."
AI South Caucasus researcher Anna Sunder-Plasmann tells RFE/RL that alleged torture and ill-treatment usually occurs during arrests. But it can take place at other times as well.
"We've also received cases of people who alleged to have been tortured or ill-treated after their arrest -- for example, on their way to the police station, or inside the Interior Ministry building," she said. "There were [even] allegations from one [man] who said he was ill-treated in the court, in front of the judge."
Sunder-Plasmann says victims of such abuse include women, children, and refugees from Chechnya.
Critics say victims of such abuse include women, children, and refugees from Chechnya.
Georgian authorities have repeatedly denied that torture remains rife in the country.
Addressing an international forum a day before the AI report was released, Saakashvili claimed police violence had been eradicated since his coming to power.
"People are not being beaten anymore. There was this stereotype that said people were tortured in Georgia," said Saakashvili. "Studies conducted nowadays by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch clearly show that in Georgia, not a single case of torture was encountered [this year]. There was not a single case of people being beaten in police [stations]."
Sunder-Plasmann believes such comments are tantamount to encouraging police violence.
"We think that these blunt denials that torture and ill-treatment are no longer a problem do not help at all," she said. "Such statements could, [on the contrary], encourage police officers to torture and ill-treat [detainees] and could give the impression that they can get away with impunity. So, certainly, such statements are counterproductive." Torture... And Death?
Rights groups are not only concerned about torture and ill-treatment of detainees.
Dolidze of GYLA says the high number of alleged suspected criminals who were killed in police raids is also a matter of alarm for her organization.
New reports in Georgia indicate police operations left at least 16 suspects dead during the first 10 months of this year. Dolidze says she fears the number may be higher.
Official reports often present such incidents as times when law enforcement officers are forced to act in self-defense.
But GYLA has questioned such accounts. In a statement released last week, the group said it believed aggressive police operations "are putting the right to life under threat" and making presumption of innocence "a meaningless concept."
"Authorities insist the people killed during these operations, which are most often carried out by special police forces, are criminals," Dolidze said. "But to those of us who take a presumption of innocence, these people are not criminals, they are ordinary citizens."
She added: "All these cases must be investigated by the prosecutor-general's office. Unfortunately, because of the free hand given the law enforcement agencies by the highest authorities, the prosecutor-general's office is unwilling to investigate."
Addressing Georgian lawmakers last month, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili brushed aside allegations of police abuses, saying the government was "at war" with organized crime. In his televised remarks, he also enjoined law enforcement officers to use their weapons whenever they deemed it necessary.
Merabishvili said: "While I am on the air, I am ordering the Georgian police, members of the special police forces, and anyone whose duty is to protect society: do not let your hand shake if you notice the slightest threat to the life or health of a citizen, especially if this citizen is a police officer."
Merabishvili's remarks are reminiscent of a warning sent by Saakashvili in January 2004, just days after his election. Commenting on a protest rally organized by relatives of a suspected criminal ringleader, the then president-elect had called upon the justice minister to "open fire and eliminate on the spot all criminals who would make any attempt at stirring up the situation."
Dolidze says such statements "violate Article 15 of the Georgian Constitution, which says no one has the right to take another person's life.
She called for a proper investigation that would shows if the recent killings of suspected criminals in police raids were legitimate. If they were not, she says, they legally amount to extrajudicial punishment.