Dispatch – November 8/9: Ordeal

Saakashvili’s Hospitalization: Another Day of Brinkmanship – Ex-President’s Botched Transfer Sparks Inhumane Treatment Concerns – Things Get Tense Outside – Supplements of Discord – Rally to Mark November 7

Here we go again: yet another night when Georgians went to sleep not knowing what they will be waking up to. But not everybody was apparently given the opportunity to go to sleep: a prominent inmate was left in confinement in the Tbilisi outskirts to be taunted by the voices of other inmates shouting insults, while others stayed alert overnight to spare him the ordeal. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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GAME OF CHICKEN The government has mastered the art of brinkmanship, embroiling the whole country in a dangerous game of chicken: a popular model in game theory where two people drive fast cars towards each other, hoping that one swerves and “chickens out.” The worst outcome is, of course, if neither swerves, resulting in a bitter crash. The Georgian Dream has mastered this high-adrenalin sport well enough to give it another go.

OPERATION EAGLE CLAW In the latest round of this game, Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s number 1 inmate, was transferred to the prison hospital in Gldani, Tbilisi. The authorities confirmed this more than an hour after he was reported (by his mother, who was waiting to meet her son) to be missing from the penitentiary facility in Rustavi, where he was being held so far. A helicopter was spotted flying over. For a while, the entire nation, including his mother and lawyers, had no idea where Saakashvili was taken – or whether he left the Rustavi facility at all. The ex-President was on his 39th day of a hunger strike, and his personal doctor cited earlier in the day the government-convened doctors’ council as saying that the patient required immediate transfer into a multi-profile clinic due to the deterioration of his health.

The penitentiary cited prevention of health deterioration and “growing threats” as a motive behind the hospitalization. The transfer, not to count the manner it was reportedly carried out, came against the calls of Saakashvili and his lawyers not to bring him to a prison hospital, citing safety concerns for a high-profile inmate not particularly liked by part of other convicts – sentenced for violent crimes in Gldani’s case – who would be nearby. The opposition called a series of rallies to demand his transfer to a civilian hospital, which has been hosting other inmates too, and Droa party leader Elene Khoshtaria has been on a strict hunger strike in the Parliament building for almost a week, voicing similar demands. The Public Defender further noted in two inspections that the penitentiary hospital was under-equipped to handle all critical situations despite some improvements, and while physical risks were minimized, there were threats of psychological terror as other inmates still could potentially verbally attack him.

HAUNTING And so it was: soon after Saakashvili’s transfer, videos emerged in the media showing inmates shouting swearwords and insults, and the Public Defender Nino Lomjaria who spoke to Saakashvili cited him as saying those voices are heard in the patient’s room as well. Lomjaria further said the inmate was misled into believing that he was being transferred to a civilian facility, and refused to leave the ambulance when realized upon arrival that he was brought to Gldani. Apparently, according to the Ombudsperson, the wardens brought him inside by force. Against allegations of use of force, the penitentiary posted a video to show Saakashvili voluntarily left the Rustavi prison facility he was held before (apparently, not an episode the Ombudsperson and her representatives were referring to). Also, Justice Minister Rati Bregadze accused the ex-President of physically and verbally assaulting the staff of the Gldani penitentiary facility where the hospital is located, but no respective footage was posted so far.

HOT OUTSIDE In the meantime, things are tense outside: after a large-scale rally demanding Saakashvili’s transfer to a civilian hospital, his release, and to have the “stolen [local] elections returned,” part of protesters have been picketing the government administration building. They pledge to stay until their demands are met. The protest leaders have urged particularly excitable supporters against attempts to storm the building. Saakashvili’s lawyers are reportedly planning to appeal the European Court of Human Rights demanding an “interim measure” – an imperative demand to undertake or refrain from the action if there is a credible doubt that crucial articles of the European Convention of Human Rights are being violated – to end the inhuman treatment of the ex-President. The situation is so tense that many fear it may grow into a civil conflict. And that is largely the ruling party’s doing.

24 HOURS EARLIER Define “public interest”: it can be interpreted both ways – something the public is interested to know, or something that is truly in the interest of public welfare. It was with its latter meaning that the term has become a part of ethical reporting. But in Georgia, it appears the notion has been widely interpreted in the former perspective. It all started with repeated calls of the Georgian Dream leaders to allow the penitentiary to disclose the details about nutritive intake of hungering Saakashvili – to prove he is doing far better than his supporters led the nation to believe. The State Inspector’s Service, a body overseeing data privacy, called on relevant bodies and individuals to only disclose “minimal” health-related information about a patient [Saakashvili] when necessary and strike a balance between “public interest” and inmate’s privacy rights. The penitentiary service, however, citing “high public interest,” chose to publish a video showing Saakashvili in the medical room of the prison, under doctors’ supervision, taking what looks like dietary supplements, and then posting an additional photo of emptied bottles to prove the point.

NOT WHAT YOU THINK The video and photo “evidence” sparked heated discussions about whether this counts as a hunger strike or if it still is, whether things were portrayed in more extreme ways than they really were. The ruling party figures, including its press secretary, published gloating social media posts. The authorities came under heavy fire from critics, who said disclosing sensitive personal information was not only unethical in principle, but it was also manipulative since according to the Public Defender, Saakashvili was prescribed sustenance supplements by the prison doctors, which does not mean he ended the hunger strike. Ombudsperson’s office further noted that by mocking Saakashvili’s hunger strike as “fake” (as GD leader Irakli Kobakhidze has done) the government is inciting other inmates to turn to more radical forms of protests and self-harm. Indeed, Saakashvili refused any treatment, which – possibly – precipitated the need for hospitalization.

FLASHBACK The opposition had a time-out in their protests on November 7 for logical reasons – the date marks the 2007 forceful dispersal of a protest rally in Georgia, one of most traumatic episodes in Georgia’s recent history and the first landmark of the United National Movement veering towards authoritarianism. Thus, those particularly fearful of the UNM’s return gathered in central Tbilisi to mark the anniversary with the key message addressed at the former ruling party “we won’t let you stir things up.” Bearing the flag was Giorgi Gachechiladze, a well-known musician previously known as “Unknown” – sworn enemy of Saakashvili and at least officially not on GD’s payroll. By the way, another complex question that Georgia is grappling with is whether the November 7 events are comparable with the similar excess of force that occurred on GD’s watch: such as the dispersal of the rally June 20-21, 2019 dispersal, or this year’s anti-Pride pogroms. To everyone, their own martyrs, and little, preciously little compassion or civic-mindedness to rein in the dogs of war…

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the tongue-in-cheek coverage of Georgia’s political life.