Background Briefing

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Georgia has a long record of tolerating torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement agents. The new government that came to power after the November 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’ has taken some steps to address such abusive practices, but these efforts have proven inadequate to stem them. Moreover, some of the government’s new law enforcement policies appeared to trigger new allegations of due process violations, torture, and ill-treatment.

The new government, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, has been trying to fulfill its promises of radical reform and satisfy popular demands to end widespread unemployment, poverty, corruption, and criminality, which have plagued Georgia since its independence in 1991. The government sees at least part of the solution in closer ties with Europe and the United States. It wants to bring the country’s legal, economic, and social standards in line with those of these countries.1 Accordingly, the government began a program of wide ranging reforms in nearly all spheres, from education to the military.

Among the highest of the government’s reform priorities was the eradication of corruption and rampant criminality. Saakashvili's strong platform in these areas led to a high-profile campaign of arrests of former government officials and suspected members of organized crime. After enduring twelve years of governance crippled by corruption, Georgians welcomed a government that was finally prepared to tackle these issues. The international community welcomed a partner government that held out the promise of bringing stability to the region.2 However, the campaign was accompanied by persistent allegations of abuses by law enforcement officials, including torture and ill-treatment. In the government’s first ten months in office, its policies seemed to fuel rather than reduce abuses. In line with the government's strong-arm approach, law enforcement officials appeared to feel emboldened to use illegal means to secure the arrests of all types of criminal suspects. Lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and even government officials told Human Rights Watch about widespread police abuses, including the failure to produce relevant warrants, planting weapons and drugs on detainees, using false witnesses, torture and ill-treatment.3

A component of the government’s criminal justice reform program is a newly created plea bargaining system, which is unwittingly facilitating impunity by enabling law enforcement officers who have committed torture, or their colleagues, to negotiate away the right of criminal detainees to seek redress in exchange for promises of light penalties for these detainees. While the law instructs judges to ensure that plea bargain arrangements are not coerced, in practice judges have done little to ensure that law enforcement agents refrain from abusing the new system and have confirmed plea bargaining agreements that effectively eliminated the possibility of pursuing torture allegations. Given Georgia’s long record of police abuse, one would have expected extra diligence to ensure that plea bargaining arrangements did not in practice undermine suspects’ rights, but no extra efforts appear to have been made.

New abuses by law enforcement officers starkly contrasted with the government's promises of reform. By October 2004, the government appeared to realize this and took some steps to improve the situation, by proposing better training for police and implementing more oversight of detention facilities.

This briefing paper examines the issue of torture in Georgia since the Saakashvili-led government came to power. It outlines the historical context of torture in Georgia, describes the new government’s policy priorities that compounded problems leading to torture, in particular the government's campaigns against corruption and organized crime, and details the measures the government has taken to combat torture. The paper raises several torture cases that highlight the problematic aspects of the newly established plea bargaining system and the ongoing problem of impunity. Finally, it lays out a series of recommendations to combat torture. It recommends that the Georgian government systematically and impartially investigate all complaints of ill-treatment and torture, make public the results of all investigations, and bring to justice those found responsible for abuses. As measures to improve accountability, it recommends that when a defendant agrees to a plea bargain, safeguards are implemented to protect a defendant’s right to pursue accountability for torture or ill-treatment.

[1] See, for example, “Saakashvili Addressed PACE,” Civil Georgia, January 28, 2004, [online], (retrieved on February 14, 2005) and Statement of H. E. Salome Zourabichvili, Foreign Minister of Georgia, Meeting of the Foreign Ministers, NATO Speeches, 8 December, 2004.

[2]  See, for example, “Functioning of democratic institutions in Georgia,” Document 10049, January 26, 2004, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; “Powell Pledges U.S. Support to Georgia,” Civil Georgia, January 26, 2004, [online], (retrieved on February 14, 2005); and “President's Anti-Corruption Proposals,” Civil Georgia, February 2, 2004, [online], (retrieved on February 14, 2005).

[3] From December 13 – 23, Human Rights Watch carried out a research mission to Tbilisi and spoke with members of nongovernmental organizations, government officials, lawyers, experts, victims and their relatives, representatives of international organizations, diplomats, and journalists. This briefing paper is based on that trip and on past Human Rights Watch research.

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