Ombudsman’s Report: A National Preventive Mechanism

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The Public Defender of Georgia has published a 517-page “Report on State of Human Rights and Liberty Protection in 2010 in Georgia.” The Report confirms a significant rise in the number of prisoner deaths, details instances of physical assaults and mental abuse of prisoners and detainees, and alleges abuse of power by prison guards and police officers.

The section of the Report that has generated the most attention is that portion dealing with the number of deaths in Georgian prisons in 2010 – 142 prisoners, the highest number in five years. According to the Report thirty-six percent more prisoners died in 2010 than in 2009. 

Most of the prison deaths are attributed by Georgia’s Ombudsman to inadequate medical services at penitentiary institutions. Tuberculosis continues to be the top cause of deaths among prisoners. Insufficient resources have been devoted to either prevention or treatment of the disease. Prisoners still lack access to adequate health care, and treatment is further impeded by the limited availability of needed medication. One promising development is the anticipated completion next year of a new medical facility for prisoners which will have capacity to house up to one thousand patients. Concentrating TB patients in one facility will reduce the risk of spreading the infectious disease among the prison population and will also increase chances for treatment of infected prisoners.

The voluminous Report describes mistreatment of prison inmates as well as detainees in the temporary detention isolators of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The data was collected by a special prevention and monitoring group during its visits to penitentiary institutions.

Interviews were conducted by the special preventive group with prisoners who recounted specific instances of abuse. Some of the victims agreed to be identified, and their cases were handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office by the Public Defender.

One of the instances of physical mistreatment cited in the Report involved the transfer of prisoners to the newly constructed facility at Prison No 16. The prisoners reported that they were transferred to that facility by force. Prisoners of the new facility at Ksani Prison No 15 also reported acts of physical violence and mistreatment by prison officers. As detailed in the Report, prisoners who were transferred from other prisons were forced down on their knees and prisoners who committed any disciplinary infraction were sent to punishment cells, where they were both physically and verbally abused. The Report identifies the prison officers alleged to be the most ruthless in their mistreatment of prisoners. Allegations against the prison guards are contained in a petition signed by 161 prisoners.

Commenting to Tabula on prison conditions, Tato Kelbakiani, Assistant to the Head of the Penitentiary Department of the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance, emphasized that the Report contains only allegations that have not been proved: “Until the results of the investigation become known, no one can be blamed for wrongdoing.”

The Ombudsman regards an ongoing investigation as inappropriate and ineffective, for reasons that include drawn-out investigative formalities, delayed forensic medical expertise, general disregard of expert opinion, and reliance solely on testimonies of interested persons. According to the Ombudsman, such an approach nurtures an impunity syndrome among law enforcement officers.

The Report provides a detailed description of living conditions in the penitentiary system. As the Ombudsman notes, the infrastructure has improved overall, although there are still some facilities in which the placement of prisoners constitutes inhumane and degrading treatment because of deplorable living conditions. Such facilities include Tbilisi No 1, Batumi No 3, Zugdidi No 4 and Khoni No 9 Prisons, as well as temporary detention isolators in Gori, Samtredia, Khashuri and Tsageri. Problems concerning personal hygiene – for example, the lack of soap and toilet tissue – have been observed in other facilities as well.

Tato Kelbakiani attributes problems in infrastructure to a grim heritage, which he claims is being addressed: “Since 2006, nine establishments have been commissioned. In the nearest future, the construction of yet another facility will commence in western Georgia, which will allow us to close down old facilities in Batumi, Zugdidi and Khoni.”

The Ombudsman identifies overcrowding as a serious continuing problem in the Georgian penitentiary system. The current occupancy of all nineteen penitentiary institutions is 24,720 prisoners, up from 23,684 prisoners as of 31 December 2010. The Report challenges the notion that new prisons will resolve the problem and calls instead for liberalization of prison sentences.

The Report recommends specific remedial action be taken by the relevant penitentiary authorities and the Parliament of Georgia regarding each issue. Parliamentary committees are now considering the Report. The Report will first be discussed at committee hearings with representatives of the relevant ministries. Discussions at a parliamentary session will follow. 

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