Just days ahead of the country’s October 1 parliamentary vote, televised images of the brutal treatment of detainees at Georgia’s Prison No. 8 are stoking one of the most serious political crises ever encountered by President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The scandal has quickly scrambled assumptions about the upcoming election.
Over the past week, graphic video footage of male prisoners being beaten and raped with broomsticks have inspired days of protests. They have also prompted the resignations of two ministers, Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Correctional System Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze.
Abuse of prisoners has been well documented for years -- some have even died in custody – yet the issue never seemed to attract much public attention.
“[Prisoners’] family members, lawyers or some people who are involved in these cases, they had information, but I think the majority of the population did not believe such brutality is realistic in Georgia,” commented Ucha Nanuashvili, the executive director of the Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre.
First distributed on September 18 via pro-opposition channels, which do not have national reach apart from cable or satellite services, the feed was soon picked up by national, pro-government stations eager not to be out-maneuvered. Ironically, the national broadcasters’ airing of the footage “is why we have such a reaction in Georgia[n] society right now,” Nanuashvili said.
Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili said public anger over the scandal could have a significant impact on the elections. For months, tension has been building in the political race between President Saakashvili’s United National Movement and opposition billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition.
“[T]his whole thing has a political dimension. … [The scandal] somehow brings people to . . . establish … more of a basis to vote against [President Mikheil] Saakashvili,” Kachkachishvili said.
Activist Nanuashvili agreed that the elections’ proximity raised the volume of the public reaction, but noted that “all political parties, not just the National Movement” now face a “test” about how best to respond.
The scandal has underscored the power of television in Georgian society. During the post-Soviet era, Georgians have become avid television watchers, with sets left on round-the-clock. Eighty-eight percent of 2,009 respondents in a 2011 media survey conducted by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers reported that they get most of their information from television, compared with 5 percent from the Internet.
Before the television footage began appearing, noted Bakar Jikia, torture prevention project coordinator for the South Caucasus at Penal Reform International, Georgians generally did not see abuses in the prison system as their “personal problem.”
Whether or not the outrage generated by the abuse videos can translate into substantive reforms of the prison system remains an open question, however. Over the past two years, rights-related issues, including prisoner rights, have not even cracked the top ten “most important issues” for Georgians, according to the Caucasus Research Resource Centers’ (CRRC) annual Caucasus Barometer survey. When respondents are asked to name “the most important issue facing Georgia,” unemployment, poverty, and affordable healthcare all score higher.
From media to prisoner rights, human rights have never been “a top priority” for much of Georgian society, said Koba Turmanidze, a political scientist and the CRCC country director in Georgia. Even with the scandal, popular priorities are unlikely to change much, Turmanidze predicted. “I think it will make it a little bit higher, but I don’t expect it [citizens’ rights] to be more important than jobs.”
Kachkachishvili, the sociologist, concurred, adding that, given widespread poverty, issues like prisoner rights are likely to fade in “the context of Georgian reality.”
Civil-society groups are pushing for greater openness in the prison system, including the reintroduction of non-governmental organizations as monitors, a format that existed until 2008. Newly appointed Correctional System Minister Giorgi Tugushi, a former ombudsman and outspoken critic of Georgia’s prisons, has pledged to introduce public monitoring.
Many local observers question whether the government’s commitment to overhauling the prison system following the parliamentary elections. For now, though, officials are taking action to open up prisons to the outside world. Since the scandal broke, Prison No. 8, located in the tough Tbilisi suburb of Gldani, has been open 24 hours a day to allow relatives to visit prisoners.
Some relatives of detainees expressed hope that lasting changes will come. One of the hopefuls is attorney Lexo Arkania, who represents his cousin, Malkhaz Arkania, who is serving seven years for being an alleged accomplice in suspected terrorist bombing plots. Arkania was allowed on September 21 to see his client for the first time in over a year. His cousin, he said, was very thin and complained of beatings and psychological mistreatment.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.