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
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era