Georgia: Exposure of Prison Torture Sparks Changes, but How Deep?
After this past week's revelations of the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners, everyone agrees that something is rotten in the country of Georgia. But the question is: what's really going to be done about it?
For now, there're a lot of promises, and a lot of show -- be it the televised updates about the government's investigation into the abuse for Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili or the opposition Georgian Dream coalition's frenzied cries for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.
The media is part of it, too. During a September 21 tour of prison #8, the facility outside of Tbilisi where the abuse was filmed, broadcast outlets eagerly scampered up to prison-cell windows to ask prisoners if the abuse continues. It was as if the videos showing the sadistic humiliation of inmates were the first these reporters had heard of it.
Sadly, for many of them, it may well have been. The reports from prison activists and Georgia's ombudsman detailing physical abuse in the country's overstuffed jails have been coming for years. In 2011, Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tugushi, now its newly appointed prison minister, reported that 40 of the 140 people who died in Georgian jails in 2011 showed signs of physical injury.
But the government-friendly national broadcasters were preoccupied with promoting the government's achievements, while opposition-minded press often discredited their coverage of Georgia's human rights woes by frosting it with sensationalism and political bias.
The government, for its part, often appeared to prefer to focus on the bright and the beautiful -- the opening of medical clinics, the Disney-Land makeover of Batumi or the comforts of safer, crime-free streets.
Even while finally forced to confront publicly the ugly truth of abuses in the country's prisons, that emphasis on the bright and beautiful continued apace.
At the September 21 opening of Tbilisi's House of Justice, a supposedly service-friendly, futuristic government administration center, Saakashvili repeated the campaign line that if anyone (meaning, in particular, Moscow) thinks that Georgia is headed back to the chaotic past, they'd better take a look at structures like the House of Justice and think again.
Or at, seated in the front row, Prisons Minister Giorgi Tugushi, and Acting Interior Minister Eka Zghuladze, who replaced Bacho Akhalaia, a former prison systems boss long alleged to have promoted the abuse of prisoners (a charge he has denied). In Saakashvili's words, the duo represent "the new Georgia."
But Georgians have been down this road before. Amidst a public outcry, they've seen police officials grudgingly convicted for murdering a young man, and then released on presidential pardon after barely spending two years in prison. They've seen a man die in a police department after allegedly "slipping" on a stairway, with no publicized follow-up. And, while welcoming the crackdown on "thieves-in-law," they've witnessed detentions for administrative offenses that rights activists argue violate due process and the right to a fair trial.
With that background in mind, popular skepticism has met the president's assertion that Georgia's prison system, in the course of three days, has been "completely" overhauled.
Rather than the government, university students, who rallied in the hundreds in Tbilisi after the videos' broadcast, largely have been credited with forcing any momentum for change in the government's management of correctional facilities.
How much further the rallies will go remains unclear. The country's most influential public figure, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II, on September 21 cautioned students against taking matters to extremes. Attendance at the rallies, which have continued through the weekend, dropped off after the patriarch's message.
Tugushi has said that the prisons will be opened to public monitoring -- civil-society organizations and media -- and officials have claimed that "tens" of prison personnel have already been removed for supposed wrongdoing.
But how long the critical thinking will last could prove the ultimate test of how "new" the "new Georgia" actually is.