In a move signalling the seriousness of the political crisis facing the Georgian government over videos documenting the sexual and physical abuse of Georgian prisoners, Georgian Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia late on September 20 submitted his resignation to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Rustavi2 television reported.
Critics have long alleged that abuse of prisoners was promoted actively by Akhalaia during his administration of the penitentiary system from 2005 to 2008.
In a terse statement, Akhalaia underlined the amount of time since he had left his prison post, but conceded that "some officials" implicated in the scandal were hired under his tenure, adding that he feels "moral as well as political responsibility that we were not able to eradicate" the "terrible practice" of prisoner abuse. Largely kept under wraps from public view since the scandal broke on September 18, Akhalaia has been a prime target for civil society organizations*. The Tbilisi street protesters, who demanded his removal, now are after his arrest.
The news of his resignation was greeted by raucous cheers and car-horn-honking from outside Tbilisi's Philharmonia, where a late-night protest was underway. Saakashvili replaced Akhalaia with his soft-spoken first deputy, Eka Zghuladze, the most senior woman in the interior ministry. Earlier in the day, the country’s human rights chief, Giorgi Tugushi, a frequent critic of conditions in the country's jails, was put in charge of the correctional system, replacing the former head, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze.Faced with widespread public outrage at the videos just over a week before Georgia's October 1 parliamentary vote, Saakashvili has vowed a complete overhaul of the prison system and its monitoring by civil society. -----
* The Open Society Georgia Foundation is among those non-governmental organizations calling for Akhalaia to be held "politically liable" over the scandal. EurasiaNet.org is funded by the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundation, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations network.
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