Georgia shaken by abuse video ahead of elections

Georgia shaken by abuse video ahead of elections

Georgia shaken by abuse video ahead of elections

People hold a protest rally in Tbilisi against the prison abuses after the videos of the abuse was shown on television. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili promises to punish those responsible for torturing and raping prisoners. REUTERS Photo

Ten days ahead of parliamentary elections, Georgia has been shaken by videos showing the abuse of prisoners, sparking street protests and an exchange of harsh accusations between the government and the opposition.

Some of the graphic video footage showed a weeping half-naked male prisoner at a jail in Tbilisi begging for mercy before apparently being sodomized with a stick, while other images showed prison guards brutally kicking an inmate.

Hours after two television stations aired the videos of prisoner abuse, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, on Sept. 19.

President Mikhail Saakashvili has sought to defuse tensions by accepting the resignation of the minister in charge of penitentiaries and completely reshuffling prison personnel. But the simmering public anger threatens to damage his party in the Oct. 1 parliamentary vote and may boost support for the opposition Georgian Dream party led by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Saakashvili, who has led Georgia since 2004, has remained popular thanks to economic reforms, anti-corruption efforts and moves to integrate more closely with the West. But his image was dented by his handling of a disastrous war with Russia in 2008. The opposition has also accused Saakashvili of a systematic clampdown on dissent and independent media.

Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, had sold his extensive business assets in Russia to enter Georgian politics. He said the videos had confirmed his longtime suspicions of the Georgian authorities’ brutality.

Gov’t accuses opposition

Georgian prosecutors have arrested 12 prison officials and Saakashvili has vowed that all those responsible will be severely punished. “Everyone who has masterminded it, everyone who has perpetrated it, everyone who has done it and allowed it to happen deserves the strictest – I repeat, the strictest – punishment,” Saakashvili said in a video statement.

Saakashvili yesterday appointed the ex-Soviet state’s human rights ombudsman as prisons minister amid protests over the videos of abuse. “Giorgi Tugushi has been a very strong critic of the [penitentiary] system and I am appointing the system’s harshest critic as its leader,” he said on live television.

“My priority will be a complete overhaul of the system,” Tugushi said. At the same time, the Georgian Interior Ministry has blamed Saakashvili’s political foes for staging the videos, claiming prison officials were paid to orchestrate and film the abuse by an inmate with connections to Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili has rejected the claim.

Saakashvili himself made a similar hint, describing the incident as fallout from a “war of compromising materials,” although he didn’t elaborate. The prison abuse videos were broadcast by Maestro and Channel 9 television stations; the latter belongs to Ivanishvili. They said they got the videos from a prison official who has fled abroad.