Thousands have rallied in Georgia to demand the prosecution of high-level officials fired in a prison-abuse scandal that threatens to unseat the governing pro-Western party in next month’s parliamentary election.
The protests, sparked by graphic videos showing guards in the former Soviet republic brutally beating prisoners and raping them with truncheons and broom handles, have increased the pressure on President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party is facing a tough opposition challenge.
Saakashvili has sought to contain the damage by firing his interior and prison ministers and reshuffling prison personnel.
But despite that, rallies continued in the capital Tbilisi on Friday and protesters increased their demands, insisting that Bacho Akhalaya, interior minister, and his brother, a deputy defence minister, be brought to justice.
An opposition victory in the October 1 vote would make its multibillionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s prime minister.
Ivanishvili would then become Georgia’s number one leader next year, after Saakashvili’s second and final term ends, thanks to a political reform that has shifted powers from the presidency to the parliament and the prime minister.
Ivanishvili and his allies have cautioned their supporters against taking to the streets, apparently fearing that a government crackdown that may derail the vote and steal what they hope would be their victory.
Students, who have been the main driving force in the protests, heeded the call on Friday, vowing to suspend their involvement in street protests until after the vote. But many other Georgians outraged by the prison abuse continued to protest.
‘Fear nothing now’
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered overnight outside the Gldani prison in Tbilisi where the videos of abuse were filmed, stopping several prison vans and asking prisoners inside whether they had suffered abuse.
One prisoner, who identified himself as Shota Nikolaishvili, shouted back, saying that he had been repeatedly beaten by guards. “I have lost my health here and I fear nothing now,” he cried.
Demonstrators also gathered outside another prison in the city of Rustavi. One protester, Mary Kiknadze, said her son in there had been repeatedly beaten.
“They punished him for letting me know about their abuse of prisoners,” she said. “This government is torturing people to make them confess to the crimes they haven’t committed.”
The European Union has strongly condemned the abuse of prisoners and urged the Georgian authorities to punish the culprits.
Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said she is “appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates in Gldani prison”.
“It is of vital importance that these and other incidents are thoroughly and transparently investigated and that those responsible are held to account,” she said in a statement.
Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said authorities in Georgia must comply with international laws that banned torture.
“We call on the government to ensure that all allegations of such human rights violations, and not only the ones exposed in these videos but any others that have been taking place, are promptly, impartially, and effectively investigated and that perpetrators are brought to justice,” Rupert Colville, Pillay’s spokesman, said in Geneva, Switzerland.