A report presented to Georgia’s Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights on May 19 exposed severe violations in Georgia’s law enforcement system and correctional facilities. The unusually harsh report by State Ombudsman Sozar Subari, known as a staunch backer of the Rose Revolution and President Mikheil Saakashvili, came as unpalatable truth to the authorities, which had been diligently suppressing such accusations. On May 22, parliament postponed hearing the public defender’s report on various far-fetched pretexts, including the Ombudsman’s lack of insight regarding the conditions of internally displaced persons. Some analysts wondered if the authorities would “suggest” that Subari soften his criticism.
Subari’s survey of the second half of 2005 presented evidence of excessive use of force by police. It also reported the mistreatment of prisoners by Bacho Akhalaya, head of the Corrections Department of the Ministry of Justice, a Saakashvili appointee. Subari also has sharp words for Secretary of National Security Council Kote Kemularia, another close Saakashvili associate and the former minister of justice. Subari blamed Kemularia for financial abuses and “persistent corruption in the prison system.” Subari also demanded that criminal proceedings be launched against Mikheil Kareli, the influential governor of Shida Kartli and a close ally of Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, for illegal appropriation of lands.
Subari’s report revealed dire conditions in prison hospitals. “The lives of many inmates could have been saved had they received qualified and adequate treatment,” the report states. This conclusion is backed by various human-rights organizations reporting about the deaths of 19 inmates this year. “This is a very high mortality rate,” Subari noted. Ironically, the next day the roof collapsed at prison number six in Ksani (eastern Georgia), killing two inmates and wounding one.
Subari also had tough words about several high-profile criminal cases, including the murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani (see EDM, March 9), the bloody suppression of the March 27 prison riot (EDM, March 31), and the controversial police special operation in the center of Tbilisi on May 2 that left two suspects dead and one wounded. Subari questioned the impartiality of the prosecutor’s investigation into the Girgvliani murder case.
The Ombudsman publicly charged Akhalaya with condoning frequent beatings of prisoners, a practice that he said had triggered the March riot; seven inmates were killed when police put down the uprising. He said that the Justice Ministry could have prevented the prison riot if it had negotiated with the prisoners.
Subari also called for criminal prosecution of all police officers for excessive use of force when detaining suspects, which often leads to the death of the suspect. Human rights groups and opposition parties have also raised this issue.
The report met a mixed reaction. Tea Tutberidze of the Liberty Institute, an influential NGO with close ties to the ruling elite, sharply criticized the ombudsman, a former member of the Institute: “I have the impression that Subari is under the opposition’s influence… and he is appealing to the opposition rather than making competent conclusions.” She suggested that the ombudsman should focus more on institutional changes within his own office. However, the opposition, which was generally happy with Subari’s blunt report, said that the investigation had missed some important aspects of human rights violations in Georgia. NGOs and opposition parties praised Subari’s report as the best report issued since the creation of the Ombudsman’s Office. Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party rebuked parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement who did not use the report as an opportunity to pose questions to the justice and interior ministers.
It appears that law-enforcement officials have interpreted Saakashvili’s “zero tolerance” toward crime, enunciated during his February 14 address to parliament, as an opportunity to use excessive force with impunity. The increased number of police “search and destroy” operations has already raised legitimate concerns among local and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the UN Committee Against Torture. The UN Committee issued a report on May 10 calling on the Georgian government to pay greater attention to protecting human rights and to develop a code of conduct for law-enforcement personnel in their struggle against organized crime. On May 23, group of Georgian NGOs, spearheaded by the Equity Institute, staged a sit-down strike in front of the parliament building, demanding a fair investigation of high-profile murders and the resignation of the powerful interior minister, Vano Merabishvili, a close confidant of Saakashvili and the reported instigator of the search-and-destroy police round-ups.
Meanwhile, National Security Council Secretary Kemularia lashed out at Subari — who reportedly had described him as a “dunce” — and accused Subari of making political statements and “stupid accusations.”
Some analysts think Subari’s tough report and highly personalized attacks on specific officials are signs of changing political dynamics within Saakashvili’s government, perhaps foreshadowing cabinet changes. They argue that the row between Subari and Kemularia will only be resolved by the dismissal of one of them or by some agreement worked out behind closed cabinet doors.
(24 Saati, Kviris Palitra, Kavkaz Press, May 22; Resonansi, May 20; Novosti Gruzia, Prime-News, Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi May 19-23)