Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Council of Europe publishes prison report without asking Abkhazia – finds no torture

On 23 December the Council of Europe published the report of the Council’s Anti-Torture Committee on its visit to Abkhazia from 27 April to 4 May 2009. Caucasian Knot reports that the publication is controversial, because Abkhazia claims that it had been agreed beforehand that the report would only be published with Abkhazia’s permission, which it did not give. Abkhazia says that its officials were still studying the report, because it had only been submitted to Abkhazia on 10 December, and only in English.

The Council of Europe published the report at the request of Georgia. Presumably it did so because it recognises Georgia’s sovereignty over Abkhazia. Still, even from that perspective, I think it was unwise of the Council, and it was unwise of Georgia to request the publication (assuming it had already obtained a private copy).

The Committee did not find any signs of torture in Abkhazia, and overall, its assessment seems not that negative, given the socio-economic circumstances. Abkhazia would have given its permission to publish the report, since it provides hard evidence against Georgian accusations of torture.

On the part of the Council of Europe then, it was unnecessary to break its promise towards Abkhazia, and bad behaviour on top. More importantly though, Abkhazia will think twice before it again provides free access to its prisons to an organisation which squarely denies its statehood. Since Abkhazia is not a member of the Council of Europe, the Council won’t have any leverage over Abkhazia to change its mind. In the end, it is just the people inside Abkhazia’s prisons who will lose out.

To the extent that Georgia really is concerned about Abkhazia’s prisoners, it is subject to the same criticism. Furthermore, while the Council of Europe may have felt compelled to comply with Georgia’s request for publication, it is unclear what Georgia gained from requesting the publication in the first place. Had the report found any signs of torture, Abkhazia would have been embarrassed by its publication: a PR victory for Georgia. Now the only thing Georgia achieved was irritating Abkhazia – I don’t know how that fits in with trying to achieve lasting peace and rapprochement.

What is at risk is a good working relationship between the Anti-Torture Committee and Abkhazia’s authorities. While the present report did not find any signs of torture or violence between prisoners, it did identify many shortcomings. Ideally, the committee should visit Abkhazia every year, evaluating whether past recommendations have been followed.

The most serious finding in the current report describes the situation of the only man in Abkhazia still on death row (there is a moratorium on the death penalty in force since 12 January 2007). The Committee found that the man in question is being held in isolation, only being allowed one hour visits by family two to four times each year. His cell measures just 8.5 square meter, which is further limited by the fact that it contains not one but two bunk beds. It is also very damp, the toilet is in very bad shape and the natural and artificial lightening is so weak that the man can only read while sitting directly underneath the light bulb. As a result of his ill-treatment, he lost his upper teeth and has trouble seeing and walking.

Some of the other points raised by the report concern the fact that prisoners often depend on their relatives for drugs, personal hygiene products and part of their nutrition, the lack of exercise, organised activities and work for prisoners and the lack of hygiene, ventilation and natural light in many of the cells.

On a couple of occasions the report speaks of improvements made during the last few years. This fits into the pattern of modest improvements since Sergei Bagapsh became President and Alexander Ankvab Prime Minster. It is to be hoped that many of the points raised by the current report will be addressed now that Bagapsh starts his second term.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Council of Europe, Georgia, Human Rights, Reports, , , , , , , , ,

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