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A 15-year old boy has died in hospital in Tbilisi after attempting to take his own life a week ago. Luka Siradze took his own life hours after being interrogated by police; two officers have so far been suspended and an investigation is underway.
The teenager’s story shook Tbilisi after local rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) claimed the boy attempted to take his own life in Tbilisi’s Dighomi District on 11 December after being subjected to ‘psychological abuse’ by police.
Siradze passed away in Tbilisi’s Iashvili Children’s Hospital on Tuesday evening.
GYLA cited his mother as saying that officers from the Didube-Chughureti Police Station in Tbilisi cursed at the boy, threatened him with prison, and threatened to cause ‘problems’ for his older brother if he did not confess.
Siradze’s mother reportedly said her son was kept for 5–6 hours at the station until he signed a confession admitting that he vandalised the exclusive Mtsvane (green) School in Tbilisi.
According to the family’s account, the intimidation took place after police separated the Siradze from his mother. They said that at one point, he fell ill due to the pressure but was not granted medical assistance.
Siradze’s brother, who said he studied in the National Defence Academy in Gori, confirmed to Georgian news outlet Netgazeti that his mother witnessed the moment of intimidation by the police.
[Read the OC Media view: Editorial | Georgian Dream’s seven ‘bloody years’]
‘Briefly separated’ from the mother
On 15 December, the Interior Ministry released a statement insisting they had not questioned the Siradze without his mother being present. However, a spokesperson admitted that they had briefly separated him from his mother citing a disagreement between the two.
According to GYLA, during the 3–4 minutes in which they were separated, a senior police officer spoke to Siradze in a separate room. They said this could have been the moment police coerced him.
The group questioned why the police had failed to summon a social worker if there had indeed been a conflict between the boy and his mother.
On the following day, the Interior Ministry announced that two police officers had been temporarily suspended while the State Inspector’s Service probed the case.
The incident is being investigated under Article 335 of Georgia’s Criminal Code — coercion of a person by deception, blackmail, or other unlawful act to get testimony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The State Inspector’s Service was established in November to incorporate the former Personal Data Protection Inspector’s Office while also investigating allegations of ‘grave crimes’ committed by law enforcement agencies and officials.
The Didube-Chughureti Police, the department accused of wrongdoing, launched their own investigation into possible incitement to suicide, before it was transferred to the Investigative Service upon GYLA’s insistence.
Ana Abashidze, the chair the Partnership for Human Rights (PHR), a Tbilisi-based rights group, said that the police had violated the Siradze’s rights if an officer communicated with him without the presence of a parent or social worker acting as a guardian.
‘If police claim that they had to separate a minor and a parent, it means that they deemed the latter unfit to represent the juvenile. This sets off a requirement to document why they decided so and also to include all the details about when and for how long the minor was alone under their supervision’, Abashidze told OC Media.
‘They have to account for all these details now.’
She said that from what had been made public, it was clear the police failed to summon a social worker. She said the police needed to explain why, if the mother was unfit to represent her son, he was later returned to her care.
Abashidze’s group has previously criticised the updated juvenile justice laws in Georgia because they do not require the presence of a defence when a minor is questioned as a witness.
‘Police officers often understand well how to manipulate words to intimidate a juvenile, and parents often are not prepared to fully defend a minor’s interests. A lawyer’s presence should be the default’, Abashize said.
Messages on the walls
After the incident, UNICEF Georgia and the Georgian Centre for Psychological and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT) released separate statements urging law enforcement agencies to deal with juveniles in the proper way during legal procedures.
‘The police are the first point of contact with the justice system. Therefore, it is essential that the police system is composed of highly qualified professionals, with the motivation, knowledge, and skills to work with children and with sensitivity towards children’s issues’, UNICEF’s statement read.
Georgia’s Juvenile Justice Code, amended in 2015, says that all cases involving minors should be dealt with by specially trained staff.
The reports of possible police abuse towards a child caused widespread public outcry in Georgia.
In the early hours of Sunday, anti-government movement For Freedom conducted a graffiti campaign throughout Tbilisi and Zugdidi.
The group wrote ‘fuck life’ on city walls, the phrase the 15-year-old allegedly wrote on the walls of the Mtsvane School.
‘Solidarity to the 15-year-old juvenile who police pushed to attempt suicide for such writing and now fights for his life’, the group wrote on Facebook on 15 December.
Several on Facebook also questioned the way in which the Mtsvane School, a prestigious private institution, handled the situation including by involving the police. Siradze was a former student at the school.
The school’s co-founder, successful Georgian publisher Bakur Sulakauri, justified the administration’s actions by saying they were ‘required by the law’. He added that it was not clear in the beginning if they were dealing with a juvenile and that they had acted out of concern for their students’ safety.
Kote Eristavi from rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) remarked on the case on Facebook, suggesting it highlighted a systemic problem with poverty and violence in Georgia.
‘You don't pay ₾5,600 [$1,900] for a private school so that the school director spends time bought by you on other people’s children, on being in solidarity with them, or generally, on the public good’, he wrote.
‘When the environment is one of violence, when all you see is poverty, inequality, and injustice […] if you have money, you invest in gates’.