Thirteen months ago, the appearance of prison abuse videos helped send President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party down to defeat in parliamentary elections. Now, on the eve of another national election, rights advocates are complaining that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government hasn’t done much to open Georgian prisons to public accountability.
Last September, a series of secretly filmed videos that documented systematic torture in Georgian prisons, including the rape and beatings of inmates, stunned Georgian voters. The scandal paved the way for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition to win the 2012 parliamentary vote.
In the reforms that followed, Georgia’s prison population plummeted, falling from 22,682 to 10,200, according to the Ministry for Corrections and Legal Assistance. Other reforms included better access to health care for inmates, a reduction in prison deaths, and an Open-Society-Georgia-Foundation-supported program to provide affordable medication and treatment for inmates with Hepatitis C. [Editor’s Note: The Open Society Georgia Foundation and EuraisaNet.org are separate entities in the Soros Foundations Network].
Wide-reaching investigations into prison abuse also led to scores of arrests and changes among prison guards. Additional changes authorized more training for prison staff, and better pay. A new system for dividing the prison population based on the seriousness of their crimes, as well as a program to reduce the influence of criminal groups in prisons, are also being implemented.
Prison reform hasn’t become a campaign issue for the country’s October 27 presidential election, a vote that marks the end of Saakashvili’s presidency; the president’s powers do not extend to prison policy. But human rights advocates caution that, without a proper public monitoring program, there is no way to judge how effective the Georgian Dream’s reforms have been -- or if torture and prisoner mistreatment have been eradicated from the system.
While Minister for Corrections and Legal Assistance Sozar Subari has allowed visits by non-governmental organizations, the lack of a formal mechanism for public monitoring makes it difficult to regularly observe prison conditions regularly, noted Nazi Janezashvili, a human-rights advocate who works with Penal Reform International, an international prisons watchdog.
Today, Janezashvili said, monitoring only takes place under the auspices of the Ombudsman’s Office. In September, 40 selected specialists – including lawyers, human rights advocates, doctors, psychologists, and journalists – started visiting prisons as part of the National Prevention Mechanism (NPM), a program to prevent mistreatment.
The program, which existed under the United National Movement, but was not active, organizes visits to prisons twice a year. It can arrange for additional visits, upon request. It operates under a strict set of rules: visits are arranged through the Ombudsman’s Office and members of the watchdog group are not allowed to make public comments without permission.
Monitoring prisoners, Janezashvili stressed, requires the right to visit prisons regularly. “Monitoring, once a month or once every three months is not enough,” she said. “Because when something is happening, you should be there.”
Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch, called the NPM a good start, but argued that it falls short of real accountability. “It is very good, but obviously not sufficient,” Gogia said.
The NPM, he continued, “is still a body that is government funded. Public monitoring would be slightly different. It would allow access to NGOs who work in this area . . . it would allow a larger group of people to monitor.”
Prisons Minister Subari, a former ombudsman whose brother, Vakhtang, served two years in prison under the UNM government, shrugged off the criticism. While expressing willingness to discuss the monitoring program “if that is what they want,” he firmly believes it should remain under government control.
Ana Natsvlishvili, a human-rights lawyer with the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), stressed that non-governmental organizations are not asking for an unlimited mandate, but simply “an independent right from [the] NPM to carry out regular monitoring -- to have planned, as well as unannounced visits.” [Editor’s Note: The GLYA receives grant funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation].
Natsvlishvili underlined that formalized public monitoring is necessary to protect prisoners’ rights in a “closed institution” where a “high-risk environment” exists for abuses such as torture. “[T]he focus for us, as well as for the government, should be the prisoners and their rights and their dignity,” she said.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.