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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.

Georgian students hold placards and shout slogans.
Georgian students hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against torture in prisons in Tbilisi on September 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.