Georgia's Abu Ghraib: The horrific stories of prisoner abuse

In the last few years, Georgia has gone from being a crime ridden failed state to a dynamic, secure and open place. But we can't pretend we didn't know about the horrific stories of prisoner abuse

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When videos emerged on Tuesday showing guards viciously beating inmates in Gldani #8 prison in Tbilisi, Georgia erupted in outrage. The first film showed prisoners waiting in line before being escorted one by one to a stairwell, where a phalanx of guards rained punches and kicks down on them. Within hours, and fresh from the beauty salon, our fragrant (and now former) penitentiary minister informed the public that she had uncovered a bizarre and implausible conspiracy theory, whereby opposition-affiliated prisoners had somehow been bribing guards to torture prisoners as a way of discrediting the government.

The see-no-evil crowd of government apologists were quick to leap to her defence until a new video emerged later in the day. This footage clearly showed the sexual humiliation and rape of prisoners held in the same facility.  In one scene, a young man is seen chained to the bars of his cell, a broom has been inserted between his buttocks. “What are you?” The guards ask. “I am a thief,” he replies in tears. Later, another prisoner is seen being forced to smoke a cigarette that has been placed in his anus. In the most disturbing scene of all, a victim is raped with what looks like a broom handle, all the while sobbing and begging the guards to stop. If this is a conspiracy to discredit the government, the Georgian opposition have learned from the guys that did the moon landings.

Many Georgians are drawing a comparison that is as apt as it is obvious: the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. In both cases guards subjected victims to violence and sexual abuse, in both cases the victims were accused of belonging to prohibited groups (terrorists in Abu Ghraib, the mafia in Gldani), and in both cases those responsible acted with complete impunity that was apparently allowed (explicitly or not) by their superiors.

Also, in both cases those responsible for setting up a system where such gross abuses can take place will sidestep any responsibility, and put the blame instead on the few bad apples that just seem to enjoy torture.

Georgia is the sixth most incarcerated nation in the world per capita, and by far the most incarcerated in Europe. The country has an acquittal rate of less than 0.1 percent. In Georgian trials the judges are no more than the prosecutor’s secretaries. Sentences are harsh and most prisons are TB infested, overcrowded dungeons (except, ironically, Gldani #8, which won an award for cleanliness). This criminal-justice meat grinder of a system is the inevitable result of the Georgian government’s fundamentalist application of its zero tolerance policy on crime. The policy has led to the country having one of the lowest crime rates in the world and a police force that you just can’t bribe, but it has also led to the lack of accountability that allows young petty criminals to be raped with broom sticks by those in a position of authority.

The government’s reaction has been predictably inadequate. The minister responsible, whose political clout was as small as her wardrobe was big, has been forced to resign. While that is almost unprecedented in Georgia, no genuine power brokers will face the axe. President Saakashvili has announced that he the entire prison service is to be suspended, jails will be staffed with police officers until new staff can be recruited. This is to be applauded, but while the police force might not take bribes, they are no more accountable than the prison guards were.

As the government scramble to limit the damage, more videos have emerged, including one of a prisoner in a juvenile prison—meaning a boy under the age of 18—being beaten for not cursing the ‘thieves’, the criminal fraternity that until 2004 ran Georgian prisons, and much of Georgia itself. The boy, stripped to his underpants, terrified and squealing in pain, is threatened with rape. In the meantime, huge protests have erupted in Tbilisi and elsewhere. The protestors, some armed with brooms of the kind used to assault prisoners, carry placards saying ‘rape me!’ and, creatively, ‘gldan-tanamo’. Everyone, government supporter and oppositionist alike, is united in proclaiming their disgust, but it is all too easy to be horrified in hindsight.

Saakashvili has spoken of his shock and revulsion at the revelations and, inevitably, promised to find those responsible and punish them. But this is disingenuous. The videos are not revelations, they are proof. For years Saakashvili has chosen to ignore the truth. Every year the human rights ombudsman presents a report to parliament in which he details the terrible injustices of the criminal justice system, every year he delivers it to an empty parliament chamber. Everyone in the country has heard the rumours about the beatings, the sexual assaults, the deaths in custody, but, with some noble exceptions, not even international NGOs have bothered to investigate. Even the political opposition have ignored the subject in favour of their navel gazing populism, preferring to merely denounce the government rather than tell us what they would do differently. With crucial elections just two weeks away, we can be sure they will suddenly be converted to the cause of penal reform.

The most depressing thing about Gldani #8 is that no one who knows Georgia should be surprised about the contents of those videos. We shouldn’t pretend we didn’t know.

Update, Friday September 21

With the streets of Tbilisi still thronged with spontaneous protests until late last nigh, Bacho Akhalaia, the country’s notorious interior minister has—contrary to my prediction—resigned. Reportedly, the crowds in the street cheered with jubilation when the news was announced. Couples kissed. People compared it to the end of the Second World War.

Akhalaia’s resignation is a huge victory for the protestors, and should come as welcome news for anyone who cares about human rights in Georgia. If one name encompasses the thuggish, authoritarian, Mr Hyde-side of the Georgian government it is Akhalaia. Still only 31, Bacho Akhalaia is the man widely held responsible for the torture, humiliation and other ill treatment that permeates the Georgian prison system.

He ran the country’s jails from 2005 to 2008, using violence, intimidation and lethal force to achieve his ends. He did what he was tasked to do: he broke the power of the ‘thieves-in-law’, the mafia like criminal underworld that ran much of Georgia after independence, using prisons as their powerbase. Victory, however, came at a cost: in 2006 a riot erupted in one of Tbilisi’s most overcrowded prisons. Akhalaia supressed the riot with special forces, leaving at least seven prisoners dead. There are credible allegations that the riot was deliberately provoked, and the seven dead thieves were intentionally murdered—so far, witnesses have been too scared to come forward.

Although he was appointed defence minister in 2009 and interior minister in 2012, no one had any doubt who was really running the prion system. The whistle-blower who released the videos of abuse (who is currently claiming asylum in Belgium) has directly accused Akhalaia of ordering such treatment. Now that the news of his resignation has sunk in, people are demanding his arrest.

That is unlikely to happen, but with President Saakashvili desperate to put out the fires before a crucial parliamentary election on October 1, anything is possible. Another question is what will happen to the other members of the Akhalaia clan, brother Data who is deputy defence minister and was implicated in a still not-fully-resolved murder case from 2006, and father Roland, who runs a province in western Georgia as his personal fief.

This is something of a watershed moment. Almost all the prison guards and administrators in the country have been sacked. The new prisons minister is a man who knows how to clean up the system: he was until Thursday the human rights’ ombudsman, the man that delivered all those reports on prisoner abuse to a largely empty parliament. On Friday, he threw the doors of Gldani #8 open to journalists and NGO representatives. Reportedly, inmates greeted the journalists with cheers, and then began to shout the names of the officers who had abused them, just to make sure they wouldn’t get away with it. Something has really changed.

By letting go of Akhalaia, Saakashvili has lost a very powerful ally, and this is the first time he has ever been willing to sacrifice loyal members of his team. By demonstrating his seriousness about cleaning up the system, he attempting to stem the bleeding and regain the initiative in time for the election. Is this is enough to convince the angry crowds in Tbilisi to stay at home until polling day, and is his parliamentary party mortally wounded? These are predictions I am not willing to make.

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