Last year Georgia hit a milestone in protecting rights of its most junior citizens – at least on paper. In September 2019, Georgian Parliament adopted a brand-new piece of legislation – the Code of the Rights of the Child – embracing the principle that best interests of children should outweigh any other concerns. UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, spoke of “a groundbreaking achievement,” which may bring far-reaching benefits to Georgia’s youth.
Sadly, universal accolade was soon overshadowed by tragedy. On December 11, Luka Siradze, a 15-year-old student, jumped to his death and succumbed to his injuries in Tbilisi hospital a few days later. Exact reasons that prompted this desperate act from the boy, who was charged with a minor offense (spray-painting graffiti on the wall of his former school) remain obscure. But many single out psychological pressure applied by the police.
Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), a prominent human rights advocate, thinks there are reasons to suspect that police inspectors tried to elicit forced confession. According to victim’s mother, there was a moment when the police have removed her son from the interrogation room, even though presence of the legal guardian during the interrogation is warranted by the Juvenile Justice Code. GYLA lawyers say the investigators also subjected Siradze to cross-examination, which also contravenes the law as exerting undue pressure. As stated by the family, an inspector pressured Siradze by saying his non-cooperation would affect the older brother’s career, who is a cadet at the military school. The State Inspector’s Service – an independent body overseeing misconduct by law enforcement officials subsequently charged one police investigator for obtaining forced testimony.
The public outrage at Siradze’s death put the shortfalls of juvenile justice sharply into political focus. In a bid to revamp the flawed framework, the government set up an inter-ministerial commission to guide reforms. The commission, in consultation with experts and children’s rights groups, thrashed out a plan for taking urgent action.Until April 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs will put in place a specialized police unit tasked with investigating child-related crimes. The Ministry of Justice backed amending the current law in order to warrant mandatory legal aid to child witnesses. Ministries of Health and Education, respectively, assumed responsibility for tackling the shortage of psychologists and social workers in the field.
State’s Response: Tangible, but Belated
Ana Abashidze of the Partnership for Human Rights (a local watchdog) sits on the commission. “Let’s face the truth,” she says, “the government has a long history of summoning ad hoc bodies in response to the fatalities.” She points to the parliamentary inquest into Khorava street murder, which – in her opinion – made no headway in averting similar tragedies in the future. Still, she told us, “we have seen the government’s will to modify the system,” which she welcomes, but with one reservation – the government must put its buck where its mouth is.
Maia Tsiramua, a child psychologist, is equally critical of belated action. Her employer, the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation (GCRT), is frequently engaged by the police and prosecutors to provide psychological assistance to minors. Tsiramua mentions a shortcoming in the law which hampers her colleagues to fully exercise their duty. “The [Juvenile Justice] Code does not specify the mandate or define the precise scope of psychologist’s intervention,” she comments. This, Tsiramua reckons, consigns them to the role of a silent witness. “Most often a psychologist does not get any say in the way the interview is conducted and his/her presence in the room is a mere formality,” Tsiramua notes. Abashidze is aware of this legal shortcoming and adds that juvenile cases, if handled by uninformed, or mishandled by abusive inspectors “may cost children’s lives.” She believes that Siradze’s death was just one tragic case in point, a window into many smaller, but no less painful dramas.
A Window into Questioning Room
A recently published report sheds new light on the questioning procedures of juvenile victims and witnesses. The paper puts forward fresh evidence, collected through a qualitative research, focusing on the key shortcomings both in legislation and in practice. The law is clear that all parties to the juvenile justice procedure must receive specialized knowledge and skills about juvenile justice. Nevertheless, the study found that most investigators are not sufficiently qualified for handling child interrogation. Officers were found prone to employing tough interrogation techniques while neglecting children’s susceptibility and their cognitive specificity.
The research found that almost none of the interrogation facilities complies with reasonable standards – rooms are not isolated from police station’s general hustle and the number of adults present in the room is not kept to a reasonable minimum. One psychologist, quoted in the paper, spoke of “utter chaos and awful noise as three investigators were crammed in one room [conducting separate interrogations].”
Abashidze stresses, that only well-trained, deft interrogators should be allowed to handle juvenile cases. “Such approach not only shields minors from disturbing or, in some cases, traumatic experiences; by opening up a child for cooperation, it improves overall efficiency of the investigation,” she says.
Yet another problem crops up when it comes to the competence of forensic psychologists. According to the research, they lack basic tools to carry out a sound interrogation – questioning protocols are too vague, and specialists get few if any opportunities for supervision (follow-up by peers or senior professionals). As it happens, law enforcement agencies have no information on the availability of psychologists. Tsiramua commends the Ministry of Education on its initiative to complete, in collaboration with the Secretariat of Human Rights (a government body), a database of qualified psychologists available to perform this role.
Criminal Justice: Last Stop for Minors
Before getting ensnared in the juvenile justice system, Luka Siradze had already been at odds with his former school. “We have to spot the whole picture”, Abashidze says. “Child’s troubles arise much earlier [than the crime is committed] and are often related to school, family and welfare,” she notes.
Over the past few years talk has been rife in Georgia about robust education system, which, if the need arises, should come forward to support children. Last year, the Ministry of Education vowed to bolster presence of resource officers in secondary schools, who, besides patrolling, are expected to offer psychological support to minors and settle school brawls. Discussing ongoing efforts, Eka Dgebuadze, a Deputy Minister of Education, speaks about “the complex vision on how to resolve the problem.” The Ministry, in the nearest future, will put together contingency plans to mitigate the predicament.
Tsiramua champions increasing the burden for educational and social institutions. “Nowadays, police officer is first in the entire administrative chain to approach the child. When a minor runs in with the law, police, school and community should work hand in hand upholding child’s best interests,” she argues.
Should commission’s efforts bear any fruit remains unclear – Ministers quit, and Governments are reshuffled. But as one tragedy follows another, the question will rebound: whose interests does juvenile justice serve in Georgia?