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Prison torture scandal rocks Georgia

Two key Georgian ministers have resigned just prior to elections, after days of demonstrations on behalf of prisoners' rights. Human rights workers say abuses within the prison system were ignored for far too long.

Georgian Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia has resigned as a result of public protest against the brutal mistreatment of prisoners. His resignation on Thursday evening follows that of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, the minister in charge of the prison system. With parliamentary elections in just a few days' time, on October 1, their resignations are a major blow for the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili.

An armed guard is seen by a guard tower at a prison in Tbilisi

Human rights authorities have repeatedly warned that prisoners were being abused

Georgians have been demonstrating for prisoners' rights on the streets of Tbilisi and other cities around the country for several days, demanding the resignation not only of the interior minister but also of his predecessor, Vano Merabishvili, who is now prime minister. Even Saakashvili himself has been called upon to step down.

The protests were sparked off by a video that showed prisoners being beaten by prison guards. One prisoner is seen being sexually assaulted with a broom handle or baton. The video was broadcast by two television stations politically opposed to the government, Kanal 9 and Maestro.

High death rate among prisoners

The demonstrators are also calling for independent inspections in all the country's prisons. Georgia's human rights commissioners, or Public Defenders, have repeatedly raised concerns over appalling prison conditions, but for years the authorities ignored their reports. One of the factors the commissioners referred to on many occasions was the high death rate among prisoners. They also pointed to overcrowding in cells and the abuse of inmates.

Georgian students hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against torture in prisons in Tbilisi on September 20, 2012. (Photo VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/GettyImages)

Georgians have been demonstrating for days and calling for the resignation of ministers

Nino Gobronidze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association confirms that arbitrary and often brutal punishments have long been commonplace within the country's prison system. "We have tried to make people aware that prisoners were being abused. We referred the matter to the public prosecutor's office, but we never received a proper response," Gobronidze says.

The Georgian lawyer Gela Nikolaishvili heads the non-governmental organization Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights. He too is heavily critical of conditions in prisons. "Every day there are instances of inmates being humiliated and treated inhumanely by prison staff," he says. Nikolaishvili also criticized the Justice Ministry's decision a few years ago to abolish the monitoring of prisons by independent NGOs. Since then, only the government's human rights commissioner has been allowed to inspect prisons.

Ombudsman to reform the prison system

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili delivering his annual state of the nation address to the Parliament (Photo: REUTERS)

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has appointed the human rights commissioner to sort out the prison system

Following the resignation of the minister in charge, Saakashvili has made the Public Defender Giorgi Tugushi responsible for overseeing the prisons. The president expressed the hope that the official would reform the system. "I am appointing the system's most vehement critic to take charge of it," he said. Prior to this he also brought in police to replace some prison guards. The public prosecutor's office reports that eleven prison staff have already been arrested.

With an eye to the imminent parliamentary elections, the head of state also turned to the people, commenting that recent events in the prisons negated all the governing party's security successes in recent years. The president declared that he would never have thought such things were possible in Georgia. At the same time, Saakashvili also warned other political parties against exploiting the torture scandal to their own advantage. It was no coincidence, he said, that it had exploded just ten days before the elections.

Torture scandal could affect election

Georgian tycoon and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili (C) takes part in a mass anti-government protest gathering of supporters of opposition parties from the coalition The Georgian Dream, in the streets of the capital Tbilisi, May 27, 2012. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Bidzina Ivanishvili (centre) is Saakashvili's main political rival

Meanwhile, the head of the Georgian Security Council, Giga Bokeria, regarded as one of the main ideologues of Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement Party, declared that the government had made a big mistake in ignoring the Public Defenders' reports for so long.

The torture scandal could cost Saakashvili's party votes in the upcoming election. The governing party's biggest challenger is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's opposition alliance The Georgian Dream. The current anti-government protests are almost certainly music to his ears. Ivanishvili is one of Saakashvili's fiercest critics. He speaks of there being an authoritarian system in Georgia. For its part, the Interior Ministry has already tried to accuse Ivanishvili of faking the recent prison torture videos.

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