Georgia interior minister resigns over jail torture
TBILISI, Georgia - Agence France-Presse
Street protests against the brutal abuse of prisoners escalated Thursday in the Georgian capital. Ap PhotoGeorgia's interior minister resigned Thursday after the release of videos this week showing the torture and rape of prison inmates sparked fury and a wave of nationwide protests.
It was the second ministerial scalp claimed by the abuse scandal which has hit the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili ahead of crucial parliamentary polls at the start of next month.
"I feel moral and political responsibility that we failed to eradicate the horrible practice" of torture, the minister, Bacho Akhalaia, said in comments on the ministry website.
"This is why I have submitted my resignation to the president." Akhalaia's resignation follows that of the prisons minister on Wednesday.
The abuse videos shocked the nation and drew international condemnation, and protesters across the ex-Soviet state had called for the resignation of Akhalaia, who served as prisons chief from 2005 to 2008.
One of the graphic videos showed a weeping half-naked male prisoner in a Tbilisi jail begging for mercy before apparently being raped with a stick. Other footage showed prison guards brutally kicking an inmate.
Several thousand people demonstrated for a second day Thursday in Tbilisi and the cities of Batumi and Rustavi to vent their anger.
Around 1,000 people marched through Tbilisi to the presidential palace and to the prosecutor's office, some carrying placards with messages that read "Don't torture" and "Don't tolerate, investigate".
"The violence in prisons that we saw on television is horrible," one protester, Irma Gogidze, told AFP.
About 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Tbilisi state concert hall.
One woman held up a picture of her brother, who she said had been killed in jail. "There is no justice in Georgia," the woman, Manana Abuselidze, told AFP. "I am not alone, there are more dead youngsters like him." Demonstrators also rallied in the Black Sea port city of Batumi, and furious protesters outside a jail in Rustavi banged their fists on prison vans and jostled the chief guard.
In an attempt to calm the outrage, President Saakashvili on Thursday appointed human rights ombudsman Giorgi Tugushi as the new prisons minister.
"Giorgi Tugushi has been a very strong critic of the (penitentiary) system and I am appointing the system's harshest critic as its leader," Saakashvili said on live television.
Tugushi pledged: "My priority will be a complete overhaul of the system." In another measure aimed at tackling the abuse scandal, Saakashvili had on Wednesday deployed police in jails to replace prison officers, while government officials also vowed to eradicate torture.
The prosecutor's office said that 11 prison officials had been arrested and that authorities were searching for another.
It alleged that some of the suspects had been paid a "significant sum of money" to carry out "inhuman and degrading treatment and torture" and then to deliver the films to an unnamed mastermind.
The scandal erupted as Saakashvili's party faces a major challenge in the October 1 parliamentary polls from an opposition bloc led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has vowed to oust the government.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, adding her voice to the international outcry, said in a statement that she was "appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates".
Ashton called for a transparent investigation, saying that "all countries are obliged to comply with the unconditional prohibition of any form of torture and ill-treatment".
The head of European security body OSCE's parliamentary assembly, Riccardo Migliori, said the abuse was "outrageous" and "disturbing".
"I expect full prosecutions of those who carried out the abuse as well as those responsible in high positions who allowed it to happen -- both to ensure justice for the victims and to demonstrate that there is no culture of impunity in Georgia," he said.