Georgian students have been protesting for the last days against revelations of torture and sexual abuse in Georgia’s prisons. The protests are taking place ahead of parliamentary elections in a few days time. Karina Gould has been following events.
On Tuesday 18 of September, Maestro TV aired a six-minute video showing prison guards physically beating and sexually assaulting an inmate in Gldani Prison 8 outside of Tbilisi. Since then more videos have surfaced, mass protests have been held in the capital, two ministers have resigned, eleven officials arrested and the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections are more precarious than ever.
A tidal wave of disgust combined with outrage over the inhumane treatment of the prisoners has spread across Georgian society, resulting in thousands of protesters taking to the streets Tuesday evening demanding justice. Protesters met outside the Philharmonic Concert Hall, where President Saakashvili was rumoured to be attending a musical show, and demanded the immediate resignation and prosecution of the Minister of Corrections, Probation, and Legal Assistance, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, Minister of Justice Zurab Adeishvili, Minister of the Interior Bacho Akhalaia, who held Kalmakelize’s position from 2005-2008, and Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava.
So far both Kalmakelidze and Akhalaia have resigned.
The Public Defender, Giorgi Tugushi and civil society organisations have been decrying the state of prisons and the treatment of inmates for years. Georgia has the sixth highest per-capita prison population in the world and an alarmingly high prisoner mortality rate. In 2011, 144 prisoners died while serving their sentences, 90% of these deaths occurred in Gldani Prison 8.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, has described the video’s contents as “a horrific affront to human rights and human dignity.”
In his efforts to quell the anger and begin on a path of reform, Saakashvili has appointed Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, known for his successful police reforms, to overhaul the prisons system. Saakashvili has also sent the police in to prisons to replace the remaining guards, has called for the establishment of a parliamentary commission and has stated that he will allow public defenders to be present in prisons. Of even greater note is the appointment of Giorgi Tugushi as the new Minister of Corrections, Probation and Legal Assistance.
“I am appointing as the head of this system a very fierce critic of this very same system and I am doing [so] purposefully, because it should turn into a completely different system.”
With the elections a week away, the President appealed to the public not to let the appalling events of Prison 8 overshadow the progress made by the current government, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he urged.
“It should be society’s main instinct to make the country move forward and not to let it return back into its dark past,” said Saakashvili.
The government, while conceding that prisoner abuse is part of a systematic failure, has tried to attribute this scandal first as part of plot concocted by the opposition, and orchestrated by Tamaz Tamazashvili, who is serving time in Gldani Prison 8 and father of a Georgian Dream candidate, and later as one born in Russia to discredit the current government and return Georgia to Russia’s imperial territory. Both it would seem are veiled references implicating the opposition leadership in the release of the videos, insinuating that Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition have ties with Russia and their election would result in a return to the oppression of Georgia’s communist history.
However, the official story was seriously put into question by the recent testimony of journalist Irma Inashvili, who asserted she leaked the material. Inashvili denies any involvement of either Maestro TV, TV9 or any political party in obtaining the videos. According to a report from The Messenger Online, Inashvili obtained the video from Vladimir Bedukadze, a former deputy warden at Prison 8 who filmed the abuse.
Bedukadze has stated that he was instructed to film these occurrences by the Warden of Prison 8 and has collected material over the past year and a half. According to the whistle-blower, abuse is common practice in Georgian prisons, however, only “interesting individuals” such as “ideological enemies of the President” were filmed. Bedukadze said this practice began in 2005 when Akhalaia took charge of the prison system.
Bedukadze has denied any link with the opposition or Tamazashvili and is currently seeking political asylum in Belgium.
Leader of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, called for President Saakashvili’s resignation on Friday 21 September.
“Resignation,” he said at a campaign event in the town of Khoni in Western Georgia, “will to some extent save the dignity of the authorities, as these videos have been shown all over the world and the entire civilised society is appalled.”
Both Ivanishvili and Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia II have called upon demonstrators to scale back activities ahead of the forthcoming 1 October parliamentary elections to ensure a peaceful environment in which to conduct the polls.
“We should manage to reach the elections in an organised manner, without much emotion and to change these authorities through elections,” stated Ivanishvili.
Though protest numbers have subsided over the weekend, some students still held demonstrations on Saturday. A total of six protesters have been arrested for disobeying police orders. A large protest is being planned for Monday in Tbilisi.
While the changes made by the government are welcome, if exceedingly belated, the attempt to deflect responsibility to a conspiracy theory against Georgia is a scapegoat for a government that must take responsibility for an immense failure and appalling human rights abuses that occurred under its watch.
Whether the release of the videos was politically motivated or not, the government has an obligation to fix this glaring blot on Georgia’s reputation.
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report writen by Karina Gould for www.links-dar.org
photo: A young protester expressing shock at revelations of torture in Georgia’s prisons. (picture courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).