Mafia shootouts, harassment of the opposition and media, political prisoners … it’s business as usual in Georgia
It is nearly two years since the republic of Georgia experienced what became known as a ‘Rose Revolution’. News media around the world heralded this development as the dawn of a new era in which the impoverished former Soviet republic sloughed off a corrupt and moribund regime to embrace young, market-orientated reformers under the leadership of Western-educated Mikhael Saakashvili who was elected the country’s president in January 2004.
A year later, in November 2004, another ‘colour-coded’ revolution took place, this time in Ukraine. Again, the media pointed to Saakashvili and Georgia as the successful model for the latest spontaneous outburst of ‘people power’. The Georgian president was a regular commentator on the stand-off in Kiev offering comradeship and support to his fellow revolutionary, Viktor Yushchenko.
However, as the Ukrainians warmed to their revolutionary theme, back home in Georgia any expectation that life might improve under the post-Shevardnadze regime had long since died. Rampant unemployment, disrupted power supplies and political infighting continued as they had done since the dawn of the country’s independence. On top of this, the judicial system was in disarray and reports of torture in the country’s prisons (whose population had doubled since 2003) were widely accepted – even by government employees.
Representatives of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group conducted two missions to Georgia in 2005. In April 2005, they visited Tbilisi as the city was undergoing frenzied preparations for the forthcoming visit of President Bush on 10th May. Fences and walls were being put up and painted to hide dilapidated buildings along his route and road surfaces along which his entourage would proceed were being re-laid. People could be forgiven for recalling past imperial visits by the likes of Comrade Brezhnev.
BHHRG interviewed media representatives, NGOs, opposition politicians and government appointed officials in Tbilisi’s town hall. They visited the main prison in Tbilisi (No.5) and the detention facility (known as prison No. 7) in the Ministry of the Interior. They also travelled to Gori and met NGO representatives from Tskinvali, South Ossetia. Finally, the Group went to Batumi, capital of Adjara, one year on from the ouster of its former leader, Aslan Abashidze, where they interviewed journalists, law enforcement officials and visited the region’s main prison.
In July 2005, the Group returned to Georgia to investigate the case of Sulkhan Molashvili whose trial opened on 28th July. The proceedings against Molashvili bore all the marks of a political trial and it was widely accepted that he had been tortured while in custody. The Group attended the opening of the proceedings in Tbilisi’s Supreme Court and conducted a long interview with Mr. Molashvili in the prison hospital.
BHHRG has followed events in Georgia closely since the overthrow of the country’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in 1991. This was the third occasion on which they had visited the country’s penitentiary system. Alarmingly, despite all efforts to improve Georgia’s law enforcement agencies, including membership of the Council of Europe, conditions have deteriorated further with corruption rife within a prison system seemingly, now run by the inmates rather than the authorities.