Despite international calls for an independent and public probe into violence in a prison that left seven inmates dead on March 27 in Tbilisi, officials in Georgia remain reluctant to make a public enquiry.
The motives behind the violence that occurred in Tbilisi’s 5th prison still remain a source of different interpretations and a source of confrontation between the authorities and opponents. The Georgian authorities described the incident as “a prison riot” orchestrated by criminal bosses, both from within and outside the prison, who wanted to stage a massive jailbreak and create “massive destabilization” in the country.
Some human right groups, as well as opposition parties, have cast doubt on this version and allege that the riot was a spontaneous act of the prisoners to protest against the inhuman treatment exerted against inmates overnight on March 27by prison officials and, in particular, by Bacho Akhalaia – chief of the penitentiary. Opponents also say that the police special forces used “extremely excessive” force against the prisoners.
The prison violence in Tbilisi triggered an international reaction as well. On March 31 the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, expressed concern about, as he put it, the “violent incident” in Tbilisi’s prison number 5 and called for an independent enquiry into the case.
"We note that different reports on the exact circumstances of the events have been circulated and a lack of clarity exists," Karel De Gucht stated.
"I believe it would be appropriate to set up an independent and public enquiry to investigate the events, including allegations of a disproportionate use of force by government troops which resulted in a large number of victims," he added.
An investigation into the casa is currently underway by the Georgian General Prosecutor’s Office. Parliamentarians from the ruling National Movement party say that at the moment there is no need for another kind of probe.
“We should push the issue of setting up an independent investigation commission only if a biased investigation is carried out. But I think we should wait for the results of the ongoing investigation [by the Prosecutor’s Office],” MP Elene Tevdoradze, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, told Civil Georgia on April 1.
MP Nika Gvaramia of the National Movement party and a member of the Parliamentary Committee for Legal Issues said that the launching of an independent investigation would indicate “distrust towards the Prosecutor’s Office.”
“This was a major reason behind our refusal [of the opposition’s proposal] to set up a parliamentary group [to probe into the case]. I do not know why an independent probe is necessary, when the General Prosecutor’s Office is investigating whether excessive force was used or not during the prison riot,” MP Nika Gvaramia told Civil Georgia on April 1.
“But if the international community further insists on this kind of probe, this can be done. However, I do not think there is any necessity to do this,” he added
MP Gvaramia also said that the cautious assessments made by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office in his statement in which he refrained from using the term “prison riot,” instead referring to it as a “violent incident,” is the result of a “lack of correct information.”
“Our representative to the OSCE will definitely try to improve this situation, because it was a real riot, which posed a serious threat to the country,” MP Gvaramia said, adding that a statement made by some human right groups contributed “to the misinforming” of the international community.
MP Gvaramia was referring to a statement made by a group of human right advocacy organizations on March 28. These groups, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Article 42 of Constitution, appealed international organizations and the Georgian authorities and condemned the police action as an excessive use of force and demanded that a public enquiry be made to find out the reasons behind the prison violence.
But another human right advocacy group, the Liberty Institute, criticized this appeal as biased and “incompetent” and backed the measures taken by the authorities to calm down the situation in the Tbilisi prison.
Meanwhile, MP Koka Guntsadze of the opposition New Rights party, who is Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, visited Tbilisi’s 5th prison on April 1.
“Most prisoners are very frightened. They refrain from speaking about this issue. However, some of them said that everything began at the prison hospital [a building next to prison number 5], where the prisoners were brutally beaten, tortured and abused. Afterwards, the severe protest by the prisoners spread throughout the entire prison and grew into a riot. Consequently, the special troops were called,” MP Guntsadze told reporters.