Illustration by Diana Petriashvili

The authorities, the public, and journalists themselves are part of a conspiracy of silence about police torture in Abkhazia. From JAMnews.

Police torture of prisoners is a problem in many countries, not least in the former Soviet Union. In Abkhazia, while it is no secret that the security forces torture people, the conditions are not right to mount a large-scale challenge to this phenomenon.

‘How Are They Different From Me?’

“They know that I know them. And I know that I know them. But we see each other on the street and pretend that everything is fine. Sometimes we can even say hello to each other,” my childhood acquaintance tells me after I swear never to reveal his name. Let’s call him Ruslan. He is not even 30 years old, he has no steady job, no family, and no memories of a happy childhood.

They say people like him “grew up on the street.” The street was different back in his day. Ruslan and his friends robbed “a little” – but said it was “only small things.” He used drugs a little – but only the light ones. He caused a few accidents – but always without casualties. Accordingly, he and his friends were well known in the local police station.

Most often, young people like these are detained for refusing to take a drug test. The law provides that if you are detained, you go for an examination, and if it shows that your blood contains narcotic substances, then you get 15 days in prison and are registered at a narcotics dispensary. And if you refuse, then you only get the 15 days – nobody wants to get registered as a drug user.

Not all police are the same, Ruslan says. “Some will not touch you for no reason, but others may break loose if you act rude. You have to understand, they don’t find us in the conservatory. Naturally, we shout something insulting to them in the process of detention and after. Should we get beaten for this? I don’t know. Maybe if I were an officer, I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself either. On the other hand, this is exactly why I am not an officer, but how are they different from me?” Ruslan asks.

He describes a typical beating in the police station:

“Basically, they hit you so there are no marks on the face. They have their own methods and techniques. That is, it is physically painful, but bruises are not visible. They don’t beat up guys like us a lot but I know that many go through real hell there.”

It is difficult for Ruslan to think about how to change this situation.

“I don’t believe that even if we put an officer in prison, anything will change,” he says. “In the first place, most likely they will be released early, and the conditions of their imprisonment are going to be very comfortable. Also, they will probably return to their duties and be even angrier.

“I wouldn’t get involved with them at all. They mind their own business, I mind my own.”

The Wrong Mentality to Fight Against Torture

Inga Gabilaya, a well-known criminal lawyer, confirms that torture by the security forces does happen in Abkhazia. She calls this a big and serious problem.

“There were cases when I arrived for an interrogation and saw that my client had been beaten. There are rarely traces of physical impact on the face, usually traces of beating on the body. In general, my clients categorically refuse to undergo a medical examination. I associate this with the mentality of our people. Not that my clients adhered to some so-called “thieves’ ideology” but the point is that it is shameful to be a victim,” Gabilaya says.

If the fact of violence is established, then, according to the law, the injured party is considered a victim. And, according to the unspoken “street rules,” well known to almost everyone in Abkhazia, this is not good for a man.

Gabilaya says she has represented clients who, even though they adhered to the “thieves’ code,” after undergoing severe physical and moral humiliation, agreed to be examined by doctors and write a formal complaint.

“I had one egregious case when my client specifically named the officers who tortured him, there is no other name for it. And at the trial, he said who tortured him and even described who exactly did what. He was covered in bruises – legs, hips, everything was purple-red. He was also humiliated morally, stripped in front of the officers.

“Despite all this, the officers were acquitted, I don’t know for what reasons. These people are in the system today, they work, some have even climbed the career ladder,” Gabilaya says.

The most high-profile case of alleged torture in recent years concerned Anzor Tarba, who in July 2019 was found dead in the Interior Ministry in Sukhumi days after being arrested. His body bore many signs of physical force. The forensic medical examination ruled that Tarba died from hemorrhagic shock.

In its initial version of events, the Interior Ministry stated that Tarba died while trying to escape. An investigator from the prosecutor’s office on duty that night, who visited the scene, reported this version. The investigators said technical problems prevented them from viewing footage from the CCTV cameras on the third floor of the ministry building, where Tarba’s body was found in an office.

The ambulance doctors, talking about the events of that night, mentioned that being called to the Interior Ministry is by now a “routine” thing with them.

Four officers of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Interior Ministry were acquitted of Tarba’s murder in November 2020. In the spring of 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the verdict to the appeal board of the Supreme Court, which overturned the acquittals and sent the case to the Prosecutor General for further investigation.

Torture Methods

Security forces in Abkhazia use electric shocks on prisoners, according to sources in the investigative agencies. Waterboarding, where the prisoner is forced to lie down and water is poured over their mouth and nose, is also common. Sources also described beatings on the legs and the soles of prisoners’ feet, rape with a truncheon, and piercing a detainee’s tongue.

According to our information, no one has ever been punished for such incidents.

On 7 July 2016, 25-year-old K.V. was arrested and put in an isolation cell in the Gal district police department. A day later he was sent to a hospital with severe head injuries that resulted in a coma.

When Human Rights Commissioner, or ombudsman, Asida Shakryl was made aware of the case, K.V. was already in a psychiatric hospital on the order of a Gal district court judge, who ruled that his state of health necessitated long-term psychiatric treatment.

After studying the case materials, the ombudsman’s office established that K.V. had received bodily injuries on the night of 7-8 July while held in the isolation cell of the Gal police station.

“It can be assumed that the police officers, using physical violence, tried to get a confession from the suspect K.V. The presence of bodily injuries was recorded in K.V.’s medical documentation and other documents contained in the case materials. According to expert opinion, K.V. suffers from a mental disorder […] which occurred as a result of specific consequences of a severe traumatic brain injury,” the ombudsman’s report stated.

The report concludes that by their actions the Gal district police officers violated the constitutional right of K.V. to freedom from torture, and also violated the fundamental principles of criminal proceedings.

K.V. himself said that he refused the police officers’ demand to confess to a robbery. They then began beating him, banged his head against the wall, and hit him with a firearm.

The ombudsman’s office, arguing that the actions of the police may have amounted to a crime, sent letters to the responsible official bodies. All replied in more or less the same words: there was no crime.

Afraid to Talk About Torture

Psychologist Elana Kortua agrees with Inga Gabilaya’s thesis that being labeled as a victim is shameful in Abkhazia. Kortua observes that in addition to such national character traits as rebelliousness, pride, and others, the peculiarities of the local way of thinking are reflected in the many notions adopted from criminal circles into Abkhaz everyday speech.

“In the context of these ‘concepts,’ a person who is subjected to pressure, humiliation, torture, etc., must proudly keep silent, so as not to lose self-esteem and respect in the eyes of other people,” Kortua says.

“Law enforcement officers are exposed to long-term stress factors, which can lead to professional and personal deformations, emotional burnout, and professional inefficiency,” she continues.

Final Thoughts

Materials for this article were assembled thanks to investigative authorities, lawyers, the Human Rights Commissioner’s office, open court hearings, and conversations with victims and their relatives.

Several readers described episodes to me that I will not be able to publish for a long time out of fear for my own safety. This only proves that there is a problem, and it is too early to talk about its solution in circumstances where journalists are afraid to speak openly about the problem itself.

Eleonora Giloyan contributed this article to the Caucasus news site JAMnews. It was produced and reprinted with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange. Transitions has shortened and edited the text for clarity.