Thanks to the overhaul of a Soviet-era law, Georgia’s police can no longer detain people for up to 90 days for minor offenses like traffic violations or disturbing public order at a protest – laws that authorities have used in the past to harass activists. Now, anyone taken into police custody for such a misdemeanor has the right to know the reasons for detention, choose a lawyer, alert family, and be held for no more than 15 days – all new protections. These changes largely reflect recommendations Human Rights Watch made in a 2012 report on Georgia’s flawed system of administrative – or misdemeanor – detention.
Under the old system, Nodari N., an activist, had been detained twice by Georgian police during protests in 2009 and 2011. In neither instance was Nodari informed of his rights or allowed to call his family. After only a few minutes in front of a judge, he was imprisoned for 20 and 30 days for petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders. The judge ignored his request to choose his lawyer and did not remark on Nodari’s visible head wounds, which Nodari said he sustained in police custody.
Defendants like Nodari were held in facilities lacking basic services like showers.
In Georgia, as in many other countries, minor administrative offenses or misdemeanors are not added to an individual’s criminal record. In most countries, such minor offenses warrant a fine, but not 90 days in prison.
Human Rights Watch exposed a “copy-and-paste” approach to processing administrative detainees: quick, perfunctory trials often lasting just five minutes, with nearly identical charge language for many. Official statistics showed that thousands were tried for administrative offenses each year, hundreds of whom were sentenced to months in prison.
Human Rights Watch had been in discussions with the Georgian government for years about its draconian administrative detention laws. Immediately after we released our findings, the Georgian minister of interior issued a decree ordering improved detention conditions, including twice weekly showers and 10 minutes outdoor exercise for anyone sentenced to longer than one week of detention. Our report and advocacy helped generate pressure on police to stop using these laws. But while the old laws have rarely been used since 2012, they still lived on the books.
Our Eastern Europe experts, including the Tbilisi-based author of the 2012 report, Giorgi Gogia, made it a priority to press the government further, to align its justice system with international standards. We worked with local partners to highlight Georgia’s flawed administrative detention system with local media, policy makers, and Georgia’s international partners, including the European Union. We helped keep this issue in the public eye for two years, making clear that for Georgia to live up to its commitments under the European Convention of Human Rights, it would need to reform this unjust law.
Human Rights Watch will build upon this positive step forward as we continue to advocate for improved human rights in Georgia, including curbing ill-treatment of people taken into state custody.