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Georgia: Human Rights Commissioner Criticizes State Of Prisons

Thomas Hammarberg (file photo) (Council of Europe) Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg was in Georgia this week, his first visit to the country since becoming commissioner on April 1 this year. Before that, he served as a secretary-general of the Olof Palme International Center and secretary-general of Amnesty International (1980-86). In Georgia, he met a range of people from the government, the political opposition, and NGOs. RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili began by asking him about his impressions of the human rights situation in Georgia.

Thomas Hammarberg: I've seen it on two levels. One is a more long-range development and no doubt there's been an enormous change since the Soviet time here and important steps have been taken to create a real functioning system of justice. It's also clear that all problems are not resolved. The prison system, for instance, is partly appalling still. I visited one prison where they have to sleep in shifts because they were too many in the cells. In a cell for 20-22 people there were more than 60 people present. And the air was very bad. It was extremely warm. The hygienic conditions were not satisfactory.

RFE/RL: Can you compare those conditions with the conditions in the prisons of any other country?

Hammarberg: I've seen quite a number of prisons in many countries. I saw two prisons here. One of the old style -- the bad one -- and one quite modern, a "new prison." And to compare the two was really two worlds. The "bad one" -- the old style -- was one of the worst I've seen. I was particularly appalled by the solitary confinement. I think the conditions must be seen as cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, which means that they would not be accepted by the European Court for Human Rights. And I have recommended to all responsible decision makers here that they close that immediately. When it comes to the sort of ordinary cells, I think also that these were also just too bad conditions. Of course, one can say that there aren't resources, we need money for a building, new prisons etc., but the longer it goes on the more responsibility the present government will have for these perpetuating bad conditions. So, I really hope that the changes are made rapidly.

RFE/RL: Apart from the prisons, what are the most negative and the most positive things that come to mind after these meetings?

Hammarberg: I think the most positive is that the pattern of torture, which was here before, where in reality almost everyone arrested got severely beaten up by the police, that is no longer here and that's tremendously important. That does not mean that there are not cases of ill-treatment, or even torture. And in particular, I have reports -- I think credible reports -- about excess violence by the police in situations of arrest and transportation to police stations. So, there are still tasks to undertake in order to wipe out this kind of brutal treatment against people.

RFE/RL: When you say "credible reports," what do you mean? What sources are you referring to, do you mean NGOs, which are actively monitoring the situation in prisons and how police behave with detainees?

Hammarberg: If you can't see [for] yourself then you have to compare different sources. I've talked with the ombudsman, whom I found well equipped when it comes to information, also making his own visits, the nongovernmental organizations, which had different approaches -- some were more political, some were more sort of objective, human rights oriented. But what was striking in this case was that I got more or less the same information from those responsible from the Justice Ministry and from the ruling party parliamentarians. So I'm quite convinced that picture I have confirmed by so many different sources is more or less correct.

RFE/RL: Some international human rights organizations, for instance Human Rights Watch, say that the situation with human rights has worsened after the Rose Revolution. Can you say anything about this kind of evaluation

Hammarberg: Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to make that assessment. But I have one principle -- that I avoid comparisons because situations do change and if you make that type of comparison it will easily be misused for political purposes. My only aim is to do recommendations and assessments, which improve the situation.

RFE/RL: When there's an increase in the number of appeals against the Georgian government in the European Court of Human Rights, does that indicate that the situation is worsening or that there is a raised awareness about this court?

Hammarsberg: That's an interesting question. It could show that there is more awareness of the possibility to complain, it could show that people are no longer afraid of complaining. But it could also show that the situation is not very good. Because there is a substance to those complaints and some which I've seen coming to the court are alarming. There is a clear indication that all problems are not solved yet in Georgia. And I think that's the main message -- one has to continue to work for real justice in society.

RFE/RL: Local NGOs say that they send their information to the Council of Europe, to the UN. Does it reach you, or your office?

Hammarsberg: I understand if people sometimes wonder whether anyone is reading those letters. But they are. I read myself everything that comes. How we organize ourselves when it comes to our office is that we have experts on the various regions and they receive all the letters and they read them. And if they are in a language I don't understand, they organize a translation. So, they are read. We cannot always act on everything but we bring it together to a sort of analysis of the situation. And when we come to the country then they are there in the background and they play a role.

Tbilisi Prison Unrest

Tbilisi Prison Unrest

Georgian police outside the Tbilisi prison on March 27 (Interpressnews)

CALLS FOR AN INVESTIGATION: The head of the Justice Ministry's department for administering prisons, BACHO AKHALAYA, is at the center of the disputed March 27 prison incident.
Top Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, were swift to commend the police action as having prevented the destabilization that, according to Saakashvili, would inevitably have followed the escape of thousands of prisoners.
But Levan Samushia, a lawyer for one of the prisoners injured during the fracas, told journalists on March 28 that the official claims of a riot by armed prisoners were untrue, Caucasus Press reported. And the 45 NGOs grouped under the umbrella organization Civil Society for a Democratic Georgia issued a statement questioning the official version of what happened and calling for an "independent and fair" investigation.
On March 27, Anna Dolidze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association raised a series of questions at a Tbilisi press conference, including why police used live ammunition instead of rubber bullets and tear gas to put down the supposed insurrection. Elena Tevdoradze, chairwoman of the parliament human rights committee, who was at the prison during when the riot supposedly took place, said one of the prisoners killed, an Ossetian, was shot in the back after the riot was quashed, Caucasus Press reported on March 29.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question concerns the role of Akhalaya, who, like Tevdoradze, was in the prison at the time of the disturbance. "Alia "on March 28 quoted prisoners as saying that Akhalaya, accompanied by special police and allegedly either drunk or high on drugs, forced his way into the prison hospital and began insulting and beating prisoners. Lawyer Kakha Kvistiani said on March 27 that Akhalaya assaulted and seriously injured his client, Giorgi Avaliani, who has been refused medical treatment for those injuries.
Tevdoradze told the parliament bureau on March 27 that she was summoned to the prison by a telephone call from an inmate who claimed prisoners were being beaten in the prison hospital, but did not mention Akhalaya. She quoted that prisoner as saying "We are afraid they will start shooting, please defend us." She said when she arrived, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was there and "very agitated." Tevdoradze confirmed that Akhalaya was there, but she said he was not drunk.
Akhalaya is said to have provoked protests at a penal colony in Rustavi two months ago by similarly turning up in the small hours of the morning and ill-treating inmates, insisting they strip naked and run around outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. When they protested, Akhalaya called in special forces troops, who fired rubber bullets to restore order, ombudsman Subar later told journalists.On March 20, the newspaper "Khronika" quoted lawyer Lali Aptsiauri as saying Akhalaya personally participated in the beating of several prisoners, one of them her client, at prison No.7. And on March 24, NGOs demonstrated outside the Justice Ministry -- not for the first time -- to demand Akhalaya's resignation.
Piecing together the official version of events, Tevdoradze's comments, and those by lawyers for surviving prisoners, it seems possible, even plausible, that Akhalaya may have incited a protest by at least some prisoners. Nonetheless, on March 28 the Georgian parliament rejected opposition calls to investigate the incident. (Liz Fuller)

See also:

Georgia: Government, Opposition Squabble Over Interior Minister

'Culture Of Impunity' Blamed For Torture And Other Police Abuses

Rights Group Sees Rise In Police Brutality In Georgia