Prison brutality in Georgia reveals the dark side of post-Soviet empire

Georgia should open itself to a full European inquiry into this terrible episode.

The appalling brutality revealed within Georgian prisons is a stark reminder of how much remains to be done to make the post-Soviet republics fit and proper places for their citizens to live in. Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili has moved quickly to fire the Interior Minister (who is close to him) and suspend all prison officers. He should go further in restoring international confidence by asking the European Union or the Council of Europe to create a Commission of Inquiry into the film showing horrific abuse of prisoners by Georgian state functionaries.

The EU foreign policy supremo, Catherine Ashton, was right to declare that she was "appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates in Gldani prison." Some of the graphic video footage showed a weeping half-naked male prisoner at a jail in Tbilisi begging for mercy before apparently being raped with a stick, while other images showed prison guards brutally kicking an inmate

The footage was released by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire Georgian oligarch who is worth a third of the country's GDP. Having made his fortune in Russia, Ivanishvili now wants to take over the Georgian government. He is funding the Georgian Dream opposition movement which has brought together the extremely heterogenous anti-Saakashvili forces for the parliamentary elections early next month. 

Saakashvili stands down as president in 2013 and has been told by just about every international visitor (myself included) that he should not try and do a Putin by seeking to prolong his decade-long domination of Georgian politics through another office. Whether his replacement should be a fabulously rich oligarch is an open question. Ivanishvili has supported the conservative Georgian Orthodox church and education charities. But as elsewhere in the post Soviet region, the ultra-rich avert their eyes to what is going on in prisons or orphanages and undertake little of the charitable reforms that involve working with the very poor and under-class.

The brutality now revealed does not sink to the depths of what happens in Russian prisons. The death of the British-linked lawyer Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian police and Putin’s prison officials, shows how the torture and unacceptable treatment of prisoners in the post-Soviet states is difficult to eliminate. But for Georgia, which claimed to have broken with the practices of the past, to be seen to allow inhumane Abu Grahib-style treatment shows how much more needs to be done.

All nations are defined by what they do to their citizens behind closed doors and how they treat those confined in prison or asylums. The Georgian state has failed that test and all its politicians – in government or those funded by a billionaire oligarch - who fight with each other for access to power and money should step back and think about how Georgia can become a nation in full conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights. There are always politicians who dislike the ECHR but European values are defined by how Europe’s state and politicians treat the weak, not by how they flatter the powerful and the rich.

Georgia should open itself to a full European inquiry into this terrible episode and agree to implement any recommendations from the EU or the Council of Europe on the treatment of prisoners and the application of justice. Russia has always refused to accept such norms but Georgia should cooperate fully and request European help in reforming its justice and prison system to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

Denis MacShane MP is a former Minister for Europe and visits Georgia regularly. He is chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia and meets with opposition as well as government politicians.

Follow him on Twitter - @denismacshane.

Georgian students hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against torture in prisons in Tbilisi on September 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.