Georgia: Demonstrations Continue Amid Promises of Prison Reform
Putting Georgia’s outspoken human rights chief in charge of prisons may appear a smart and promising move, but it may not contain popular anger snowballing over TV revelations of sexual abuse and beatings in a prison outside of Tbilisi.
Thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi on September 20 and convicts’ relatives continued to besiege Prison 8, the notorious site of the abuse, amid rumors of ongoing torture and intimidation of inmates following the videos' release. Mothers pushed themselves against prison gates, demanding meetings with their sons out of fear that some inmates may face retribution for revealing violence inside the prison.
For a president whose political party faces a hotly contested parliamentary election in just over a week, the situation is far from ideal. With the clock ticking, Mikheil Saakashvili appointed ombudsman Giorgi Tugushvili, a frequent critic of abuses in Georgian prisons as the new head of the correctional system.
Some welcomed the move, while particularly vocal government critics lambasted the ex-ombudsman for accepting the job. The government, in the past, has paid scant attention to his reports of abuses. Others argue that the test for the new prison minister will be his eagerness to take on high-ranking officials, such as Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who ran the prison system from 2005 to 2008, for their suspected contributions to the practice of prisoner abuse.
Meanwhile, the arrests of prison officials continued, while Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava -- one of the officials targeted by outraged critics -- claimed that the ex-prison guard who allegedly supplied the videos had received $2 million for their compilation -- a claim that implies strongly that government opponents were involved. The ex-guard, in an interview with RFE/RL from Brussels, denied any connection with the government's opponent-in-chief, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The scandal's political dimension, though, is impossible to miss. Opposition parties have readily embraced the scandal as a campaign issue, as evidenced at each demonstration by the scores of young protesters wearing the T-shirts of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. The government’s allegations about a set-up scheme and promises of reform, so far, have not mitigated the tensions that are driving them to march.