Q&A with Public Defender Sozar Subeliani
The reaction to the case wherein over 60 servicemen from the Mukhrovani military unit went AWOL to protest against the social conditions in the army by the Georgian Public Defender has stirred up controversy in the society.
Some have criticized the Ombudsman’s Office and Public Defender Sozar Subeliani personally for inadequately assessing the incident and giving insufficient attention to those servicemen who claim their rights were violated.
Sozar Subeliani, during an interview with Civil Georgia, said that the servicemen’s rights have actually been violated in the military unit and that the commanders of the unit should bear the responsiblity for this.
The Ombudsman also spoke about the facts of human rights abuses generally found in the law-enforcement agencies and added that “facts of violations really take place, but not on a wide-scale.”
Q.: What happened in the Mukhrovani military unit and why did the servicemen go AWOL? What were their demands?
A.: Three of our employees are currently inspecting the conditions in the military unit in order to find out why the soldiers left the unit.
I am sure that the question of responsibility of the commanders of the military unit should be raised.
We can divide the demands of those servicemen who went AWOL into several categories. For example, a group of servicemen are demanding to serve near their homes while another group claims that they were not given vacation.
According to some servicemen, while taking a military oath they were contracted to serve for 12 months, but later this term was prolonged to 18 months. It can be said that they do not know their rights and those [commanders] who exploit this should be punished by all means.
There are more serious complaints as well, such as lack of medicines, water and food. The servicemen claim that they were given meat only if someone from the authorities or other high officials were visiting the military unit.
The soldiers are also complained over the fact that their commanders used to take them to cut wood for their [commanders] own families, while the military unit had no sufficient heating.
Moreover, it is worth noting that after this incident the servicemen were pressured [by the investigators to reveal the protest’s organizers].
We are also trying to find out whether the commanders also pressured the soldiers in the military unit. As far as we know, there have been cases when officers have beaten privates. For example private Botkoveli was beaten because he gave his boots to his friend.
Also noteworthy is that when these soldiers ran away from their military unit, they intended to go to the 8th brigade [of the Internal Troops], which is stationed in Tbilisi; however someone advised them to go to the State Chancellery or to the Ombudsman’s Office instead. However, I do not know who this person is. The investigation will find this out.
Q.: Some officials described the incident as “a provocation” inspired by a so-called “third force.”
A.: Personally, I do not think that an intelligence agency from a foreign country was involved in this case; however, it is up to the investigation to find this out.
Q.: The position taken by the Ombudsman’s Office regarding this incident sparked a controversy. Some criticized you for “inadequately assessing the incident” and paying insufficient attention to those servicemen who claimed their rights have been violated.
A.: Our position remains unchanged. Deserting your military unit and holding a protest rally is not the correct way for servicemen or policemen to settle their problems. When they gathered outside the Ombudsman’s Office, we called on them to return to their military unit and promised them that our representatives will follow them and protect their rights.
As it turned out, some days before this recent incident, over 40 soldiers also went AWOL from the same [Mukhrovani] military unit. But in order to hide this fact, officials met the soldiers’ demanded requirements and redeployed them in various units. I think that this way of solving [these types of] problems is inadmissible.
If conditions are terrible in a military unit, this unit should be closed down; and if the commanders create these terrible conditions, these commanders should be strictly punished. For example, when someone runs away and you meet his demands [in order to make him return] and you don’t do this with another soldier, this means that you promote disorder in the army.
If conditions are not good in the military unit, then all the commanders should definitely be punished.
I repeat once again that our position was adequate in this particular case. Protection of the servicemen does not mean that we should release them from the army or let them serve near their homes. I do not think that a protest rally is the correct way for those soldiers who want to serve in their native regions to get what they want. I admit that conditions are not good, but these conditions will be improved.
The Mukhrovani military unit faces a very real water supply problem. But work has already begun in this direction. The army cannot be constructed in a month. If we want to build the army in a month, we should say that we will not distribute pensions or salaries and direct all funds to the army.
Q.: President Saakashvili said that “everybody who ran away from the military unit should go to jail.” Should the servicemen be punished in this particular case?
A.: Those who are responsible should be punished. In this particular case, the soldiers cannot be punished. Their actions cannot be considered as a crime. If we speak about violation of army discipline, particular punishments can be applied, such as a warning or a reprimand.
However, someone will be punished by all means. The fact that new clothes were distributed among the soldiers and then taken away is simply robbery and it should be punished.
I intend to personally meet with these servicemen. I do not know where they will continue their service, but no matter what, we will protect their rights anywhere.
I have no doubt that Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili will strictly punish those persons who actively violated these soldiers’ rights.
Q.: Some speculated, after the Mukhrovani incident, that the Ombudsman’s Office is under a lot of pressure from the government.
A.: The Ombudsman’s Office faces two dangers: to fall under the influence of either the authorities or public opinion. Today, nobody lives in an absolute vacuum; nobody is protected against these dangers. I find it rather important to be principled and put human rights above everything.
I have never avoided confronting the officials if it was necessary. When a sharp confrontation became necessary, I did not avoid it. I recall an incident in Kekhvi [a Georgian village in the South Ossetian conflict zone], wherein buses with around two hundred Georgian citizens coming from Russia via breakaway South Ossetia were blocked by the Georgian police. I stayed with those people until they were released.
In the case of Mukhrovani, it seems that one part of the society cannot understand my position properly. I still keep to my position and consider it to be correct. I will protect the servicemen’s rights, but I will never agree with them regarding serving near their homes.
Q.: Now, one question about the human rights abuses in the law enforcement agencies. According to the data of some human rights watchdog organizations, in 2004 the facts of violations of detainees’ rights increased from last year. What can you say about that?
A.: Unfortunately, facts of violations really take place, but not on a wide-scale. Monitoring groups, consisting of representatives from various non-governmental organizations, will be set up. I hope that these groups will promote a reduction of human rights abuses by law-enforcement agencies.
These groups will have the right to enter any department of the Interior Ministry, including pre-trial detention cells.
They also have the right to bring in video or audio recorders. According to the Memorandum on Mutual Understanding and Cooperation, signed by the Interior Ministry, video tape recordings will not hamper the legal interests of the investigation, but if the detainee is tortured, this will be recorded and then showed to society.
We should know that the activities of these monitoring groups will not eradicate human rights abuses completely; however, law-enforcement agencies should understand that law enforcers will be punished in cases of human rights violations.