Giorgi Tugushi, who served as Public Defender since 2009, has been appointed as new minister in charge of the prison system.
Tugushi has replaced on the post of Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance of Georgia Khatuna Kalmakhelidze who had to resign after shocking videos of abuse and rape of prisoners emerged on September 18.
“I am appointing as the head of this system a very fierce critic of this very same system and I am doing it purposefully, because it should turn into a completely different system,” said Saakashvili, who was standing alongside with Tugushi when making the announcement.
“For many it might be a surprise why I have agreed to take up this challenge,” the new minister for prison system, Giorgi Tugushi, said.
“Previously [as Public Defender] I was documenting [problems] in a form of my reports and submitting them to the government, but as the President himself noted many of my recommendations have been left unheeded. Now I should have a possibility to put into practice everything that I have been talking about for last three years.”
“One of the major reasons why I have agreed to this proposal is that I will be given an opportunity to introduce radical changes in the system and to secure appropriate protection of rights of inmates,” Tugushi said.
“Mr. President has pledged that I will have full freedom, that I will be able to fully reshuffle the system,” he said, adding that his appointment will make it possible to implement all those multiple recommendations which he was giving to the authorities while serving as the Public Defender.
“Mr. President has also pledged that I will be able to have direct contact with him over these issues,” Tugushi said and stressed that it would be impossible to tackle problems without funding increase for the penitentiary.
President Saakashvili said that the new minister “will have full independence.”
“No one but the law and society will meddle into [the minister’s activities]; that’s very important,” he said.
“Response of our government to radical challenges is more radical than any government of any country would have done,” Saakashvili said. “We will never step back before difficult challenges. We are glad that this person [referring to Giorgi Tugushi], who is not a politician and not a member of any political party, has not stepped back before this difficult challenge either. We now need brave and bold people, who will change everything in the system where everything needs to be changed.”
“The politics is the least I am interested in in recent days, but political manipulations about human fate are unacceptable,” Saakashvili said. “We should build a society where there is zero tolerance towards crime, especially organized crime – the society should be protected and no one should play with these issues… But no one should also play with human rights; zero tolerance towards violation of human rights – that is the principle we should all establish.”
He also said that all the required mechanisms should be introduced in order to prevent reoccurring of “such things that were taking place in this system”.
Significant parts of the Public Defender’s annual reports to the Parliament were dedicated to problems in the penitentiary system, describing cases of inmates’ abuse by prison staff.
In his most recent report, covering 2011, Public Defender wrote: “In order to completely eradicate [prisoners'] ill-treatment, it is essential to effectively investigate each of such case and to overcome syndrome of impunity that represents a serious problem today... The Public Defender has referred number of such cases to the Georgian chief prosecutor’s office, but in most of the cases investigation is either suspended or dragged out.”
Response of the Parliament, dominated by members of President Saakashvili’s ruling UNM to Public Defender’s reports was passing of a resolution saying that lawmakers “take a note” of the report.
A small parliamentary minority group, led by Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM), was instead calling on ruling party lawmakers to pass a resolution that would have required from the prosecutor’s office investigation of cases of prisoners’ abuse documented in the Public Defender’s reports. During hearings of the Public Defender’s reports in 2012 and 2011 the parliamentary minority group requested launch of procedures for impeachment of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, who until September 19 was the minister in charge of prison system; the ruling party lawmakers voted down the proposal.
Secretary of National Security Council, Giga Bokeria, said on September 20: “We, as the authorities, made a grave mistake, when we failed to properly assess those signals coming from the Public Defender, various civil society groups about the systemic problems existing in [the prison] system.”
It is not yet clear who will replace Tugushi on the post of Public Defender. According to the law the President or a group of at least six lawmakers have the right to nominate a candidate for Public Defender’s post; then a candidate has to be approved by the Parliament for five-year term. It is likely that the new public defender will be selected and approved after the new Parliament is convened following the October 1 parliamentary elections.