Rights groups criticise Georgia over jail torture

TBILISI, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Georgia needs to make good on repeated promises to end torture and ill-treatment in prisons, human rights groups said on Thursday in findings which could damage the country's hopes of joining NATO.

Georgia, a former Soviet state which likes to sell itself abroad as a Western-style democracy, still faces huge challenges to meet European standards of governance.

Penal Reform International as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the government to address poor conditions and overcrowding in prisons.

"The anti-torture action plan ... restates promises that senior Georgian officials have made before ... For such promises to remain credible, however, they have to be backed up by substantive action," Mary Murphy, a director of Penal Reform International's South Caucasus office, said in the report.

The criticism came as President Mikhail Saakashvili, who led a popular revolution to power in 2003, faces his biggest challenge yet from a newly united opposition.

The Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) said in the report that in one of the pre-trial facilities in Georgia, living space per prisoner was frequently below 0.5 square metres.

Rights groups said in their findings that Georgian authorities should also stop ill-treatment of detainees by guaranteeing their rights as well as ensuring effective investigations into allegations of abuse.

"The provision of health care to prisoners remains problematic due to the shortage of staff, facilities and resources ... At prison number 6 in Rustavi the (CPT) delegation received numerous and consistent allegations of prisoners being beaten", the CPT said in the report.

Georgia faces a wide range of problems including poverty and unemployment, as well as conflicts with former autonomous regions and a bad relationship with its giant neighbour Russia.

The popular revolt against the president came after a close Saakashvili ally, former defence minister Irakly Okruashvili made a series of dramatic accusations against his former boss, accusing him of corruption and plotting to kill a businessman.

Okruashvili was arrested and then, days later, made a televised statement in which he withdrew all his accusations and said he was leaving politics. Friends claimed that the statement was made under duress.

Okruashvili was released on $6 million bail after the "confession" but his arrest provoked the biggest anti-government protests since Saakashvili came to power.

Georgian officials admitted problems in the judicial and prison systems.

"We inherited a Soviet penitentiary system and so now we are building a new system, that requires us to apply European standards," Georgy Baramidze, the state minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told Reuters.

Rights groups in their previous reports have pointed to problems with human rights in Georgia, where the government ordered a crackdown on widespread tax evasion and graft.

Public opinion polls show that the public does not trust the judiciary system.