Ombudsman Asks State Inspector to Study Lawfulness of Justice Minister Disclosing Prison Footage

The Public Defender of Georgia, Nino Lomjaria, has called on the State Inspector to examine the lawfulness of public disclosure of video footage by the Minister of Justice Thea Tsulukiani at the sitting of the Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights and Civil Integration on January 21, where the Ombudsman was presenting a special report about the monitoring carried out in a number of penitentiary institutions.

During the Committee sitting, two of the video recordings disclosed by Tsulukiani showed certain episodes of meetings between the Public Defender’s representatives and prisoners at Georgian penitentiary establishments. On the same day, the videos were posted on the Facebook page of the Ministry of Justice.

The Ombudsman claims that during the disclosure, the faces of the Public Defender’s representatives were not blurred out in the publicly available videos and they can be easily identified. She also stressed that the Organic Law of Georgia on the Public Defender of Georgia prohibits any kind of video-audio surveillance of meetings between the Public Defender's representatives and prisoners by the Ministry of Justice.

“As the video footage depicting a meeting between one of the representatives of the Public Defender and an inmate shows, no unlawful action took place, and as the purpose of archiving the video is not clear, the Public Defender considers that an unlawful action was taken by the Ministry in archiving videos and retaining them for a long time. In addition, the disclosure of identifiable video footage of two representatives of the Public Defender violated the requirements of the Law of Georgia on Personal Data Protection,” Lomjaria stressed.

Justice Minister Tsulukiani released the prison footage in order to criticize representatives of the Public Defender for their choice of clothing during their visits to prisons. She says one of the representatives was wearing “torn jeans” and a beret during a meeting.

“In this video, I find it difficult to identify who is the prisoner and who is the Ombudsman’s representative...The only thing that helps to differentiate them is the hat, which inmates are not allowed,” she added.

Tsulukiani also noted that the representative of the Public Defender ate the prisoner’s chocolate and had coffee during the interview, adding this “is not appropriate behavior”.

Non-governmental organizations criticized the Minister for her actions, saying this act on the one hand grossly violates the principles of Georgian legislation, and on the other hand contradicts international obligations undertaken by Georgia.

“We believe that this act of the Minister of Justice of Georgia should come under her political responsibility,” the NGOs said in their joint statement released on Wednesday.

The organizations added that the National Preventive Mechanism under the Public Defender is currently the only body authorized to enter detention and penitentiary facilities without special permission and to examine the legal status of persons held there.

“Even if a representative of the National Preventive Mechanism decides to interview a prisoner under video surveillance, public disclosure of the footage is categorically unacceptable and grossly violates the principles set out by the law,” the statement reads.

To note, during the presentation in Parliament, the Public Defender stated that according to information obtained during monitoring carried out in penitentiary establishments N2, N8, N14 and N15 in July and August 2019, there is no violence-free environment in the detention facilities and the criminal subculture creates the risk of ill-treatment, including physical and severe psychological violence.

“Psychological violence is mainly manifested in extortion, humiliation, marginalization and other acts...The problem is complicated by the fact that inmates are not properly aware of their rights and responsibilities and refuse to exercise their right to complain due to the influence of the criminal subculture and fear of repression,” Lomjaria declared in Parliament on Tuesday, to which the Justice Minister angrily responded with the above-mentioned video footage.

By Tea Mariamidze

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23 January 2020 16:00