Georgia leads way with record number of prisoners

Georgia's legal system is under fire for failing to match its claims of democratic development. The number of prisoners has significantly increased since President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power.

The people of Georgia do seem to have the right to speak their mind. But if you are unfortunate enough to be detained, it appears that for many all rights go out the window. And should the case get to trial, there can be very little hope of an acquittal, no matter how good your lawyer is.

“In the last three years I've managed to win only three cases,” says lawyer Gela Nikoleishvili. “But if we were to look at statistics, at the thousands of cases heard in Georgia's courts, we would see that acquittals make up less than one per cent of the numbers.”

A recent Human Rights Watch report on changes within Georgia's legal system noted positive steps, but  that there were a lot of concerns as well.

According to the HRW, moves like increasing the prison term for administrative offences from 30 days to three months come "in contradiction to all democratic developments, as international organizations insist jail can only be used as a last resort.

Debates about the fairness of Georgia's legal system continue, but the numbers speak for themselves. Last year alone, out of 12,000 delivered verdicts, only seven were acquittals.

Various international surveys show that nearly half of the population has no trust in their country's judicial system. Even the lawyers feel it is a lose-lose game, which is understandable, since a lot of them end up behind bars themselves.

“Saakashvili does not want to have an independent court system,” Eka Beselia, a human rights activist, told RT. “The prosecutor’s office is dominant, and the police are the main power and political pressure instrument in the country; and there is no need for justice or lawyers. He is trying to influence advocacy and when he fails, he arrests those lawyers or discriminates against those who do not cooperate.”

Ever since Mikhail Saakashvili rose to power with the Rose Revolution, his interests have clearly pointed west. Yet a legal system based on fairness and justice does not seem to be a priority.

According to some, the justice system in Georgia today measures up worse than that of Soviet times.

“Georgia holds first place for the highest number of prisoners per capita in Europe, which is a very somber fact,” says Zaza Khatiashvili, president of the Georgian Lawyers Association. “I remember Reagan used to call the Soviet Union the 'evil empire', and then later, George Bush called Georgia 'a beacon of democracy'. But how does this beacon have five times more prisoners per capita than the evil empire?”