Anybody listening now?
20 September, 2012


By now, we've all seen the videos. As I write they are new and people are on the streets. A few words about prisons in Georgia. The fact that people are being tortured in Georgian prisons is not new information for the authorities. NGOs and the Public Defender have been saying it, with evidence in reports and statements for years. The authorities didn't care and did nothing. The attitude was always that NGOs were paid to write these reports and

so they would write them.


Human Rights, particularly of prisoners, was considered irrelevant to the great national project. In fact, this shoot the messenger attitude has been epidemic. Whenever anybody would make a criticism, no matter what the subject, the first and instinctive response would be to question the motives of whoever made the criticism. This is what happened with these videos. The first instinct was to strike out at and investigate whoever made them. Smart rulers know that they can become isolated and welcome views from outside the inner circle. If they don't, and in this case, concerns about treatment of prisoners were ignored for years, then the case will be stated more forcefully, for example in videos that come out twelve days before an election rather than in a report.


The Public Defender noted these cases in this prison, in detail to parliament. The parliament ignored him. Few of the MPs were even in the room. No comission was formed to investigate. It was a clear illustration of how the constitutional majority has led to a parliament that does not have any interest whatsoever in overseeing the executive. It is a convenient arrangement for the ruling party but one that has serious consequences, as we now see.


The authorities are justifiably proud of the administrative reforms and the reforms of the police and and the precipitous drop in crime. But there is little public discussion of the role that prisons play in that change. But concern about prison has become a big worry for many families. Georgia now has per capita the forth largest prison population in the world. I have heard that the increase in prison population in Georgia was the fastest in history. I would guess that over 90% of those prisoners were put there via a plea bargain rather than by trial. I don't know anybody not directly connected with the government that believes people can get a fair trial in Georgia. So while crime is down, way down, many people still feel insecure. They believe that if they are arrested, they have no recourse. If they are innocent, they will be given no chance to prove that in court. They will be offered a deal and they will accept whatever will lead to the least jail time. That is a smart strategy, looking at those videos.


So now that crime is so low, people feel a different type of insecurity. I am not saying that it happens here, because I have no direct evidence, but that feeling of having no defence against the state, has political consequences. Hypothetically it would make it much easier for the state to take money from people, to intimidate them, for example into not voting. These are serious possibilities with dangerous consequences. The overwhelming power of the state in Georgia, particualrly through the criminal justice system is so prevalent that it has gone beyond simply a way to fight crime, and has at least for some people become political.


As I write, the government has taken notice of the problems in the prison system. They are worried about this and at least now I believe intend to solve the problem. There are few other countries near here where the government would care. But do they care enough? The test of that is not who resigns or gets fired now or what they say or do about this before the elections, the test is how long they care. The solution to this is to build independent institutions, which  has not been a strength of this government. The way to build independent institutions is transparency. If they really want to prevent this from happening, they will make both the criminal justice system, particularly the very murky plea bargaining system, and the prison system more transparent. And with that transparency, will come some damaging information. There is no way to be transparent and build institutions and at the same time limit the information flow. If they want to solve this problem, they will have to deal with that.


What we need from the authorities isn't commitment, we need commitment over a long enough period of time that the problem can actually get solved. Let's say six months. I am marking my calendar for 18 March 2013 to see if they are worried about this because of the elections or if there will actually be any effort put into a real long term solution to this problem.