Saba Brachveli, a lawyer at Ombudsperson’s office
By publicly exposing the identities of prisoners that met the Ombudsperson and by filming the meetings of the Ombudspersons’ meetings with prisoners, the Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani has undermined the carefully constructed bridge of trust that protects the inmates from abuse. In doing so, Tsulukiani has crossed a major line from political bickering to conduct prejudicial to Georgia’s human rights commitments.
2020 has brought yet another battle to the already polarized Georgian political scenery. The dispute between the Minister of Justice and the Public Defender on the Parliament floor has quickly developed into a major conflict.
In her report to MPs, the Ombudsperson claimed that the prison administration was allowing some privileged prisoners effectively supervise others, effectively running the prisons jointly with them. The Minister was incensed. Even though her Ministry had previously agreed with the CPT report describing the same situation, Minister Tsulukiani refused to take the criticism from the Georgian colleague in a constructive vein.
Her response was personal and petty. At the hearing the Minister labeled the report as a ‘hoax,’ criticized Ombudsmperson Lomjaria for using wrong terminology, wondered whether she was influenced by “someone” to personally attack the Minister. She also accused Ombudsperson for not visiting the prisons often enough and attempted to discredit the report by implying that the Ombudsperson staff had acted unprofessionally. Minister Tsulukiani showed previously prepared video footage of the visit of ombudspersons’ office members to the penitentiary establishments, and said that the staff had in some cases stayed with the prisoners for hours, sometimes drinking the coffee and eating the chocolate offered by inmates, which the Minister considers unprofessional. The Minister also argued some wore “torn jeans” during visits, saying this was unacceptable “not only for prison, but even for going to the opera house,” as she put it.
Theatrics aside, the Ombudsperson was alarmed by the footage. These videos were illegally stored – for some 8 months – and that the faces of her staff members were not concealed, which is a procedural violation. Lomjaria referred the case to the State Inspector’s Service which is authorized to inspect the cases of the personal data privacy violations.
However, the Minister has doubled down on her efforts to frame the Ombudsperson look politically biased. A day after the Parliamentary hearing, when Lomjaria and her deputy visited Tbilisi’s prison N9, the penitentiary staff have notified the media and announced via Facebook page the names of the prisoners whom the Ombudsperson had met – in effect, these were former officials, affiliated with the opposition party.
Ombudsperson considers the Minister to be in breach of the Article 352 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits hindering the Public Defender in exercising her duties. Tsulukiani denies the Ombudsperson’s accusations by claiming that she has not barred the Public Defender from visiting any convict in prison.
What the minister neglects to consider, however, is the peculiar nature of the work of the Public Defender. In Georgian prisons, when the detainee meets the representative of the Public Defender it sends a clear signal to both the prison administration and the privileged group of prisoners who often do the administrations’ bidding.
Both the administration and these privileged prisoners seek to prevent the inmates from communicating with the Ombudsperson’s staff. Lomjaria’s report to the Parliament indicates that from some prisons only a few dozen letters get sent to the Public Defender. Even fewer agree to a meeting.
Therefore, the Public Defender has to take extraordinary precautions to ensure the confidentiality of those prisoners who agree to talk. In this communication, no step is taken without the explicit consent of the prisoners. The Ombudsperson relies on the trust gained through these delicate practices of communication to remain effective in monitoring the prisons and to fulfill the international and domestic obligations for preventing torture.
It is this carefully constructed bridge of trust between the prisoners and the Ombudsperson that the Minister attacked. By releasing the videos and later the names of the prisoners who had met with the Ombudsperson or her staff she has sent a strong warning – meet with Ombudsperson’s office and your name might appear on the Facebook page for everyone to see.
In doing so, Tsulukiani has crossed a major line. It is one thing to call names and engage in a political battle, but it is entirely another to blatantly violate the privacy of the prisoners and to directly aim to hinder the effectiveness of the Public Defender’s work. By creating a chilling effect on the prison population she has undermined the Ombudsperson’s capacity in the preventative measures against torture.
It is unclear how the investigative bodies will respond to the Ombudsperson’s call. It remains to be seen what price the sole national human rights organization will pay for the pride of the Minister.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)