For those of you outside of Georgia (or for those of you in Georgia but who still haven’t come out of shock that there will soon be a Wendy’s on Rustaveli) I would like to draw your attention to the human rights abuse scandal at Gldani Prison No 8. Appalling video footage was aired today by opposition stations Channel 9 and Maestro (partial footage can be found here, here, and here; discretion advised). The most shocking were the clips shown on Channel 9, which included graphic images of prison guards raping inmates with a stick; in separate footage an inmate was seen tied to a cell door as he was sodomized with a broom handle.
Today, Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the highest prison population per capita in Europe, with 24,000 inmates (four times as many as when Mikheil Saakashvili was first elected president in 2004). Although the public reaction was strong today, this is certainly not the first report of prison brutality heard of by Georgian leaders and citizens. The Saakashvili administration, however, has chosen to gloss over these issues in the past by vaunting the internationally-praised police reform and the success of the “zero tolerance on crime” policy.
Clearly, the opposition chose to release the videos this week in order to embarrass the ruling party on the eve of parliamentary elections, but Saakashvili lashed out with a totally improbable response, stating that the bad publicity was part of a “conspiracy” orchestrated by Moscow to manipulate Georgian electoral processes, in order to force Georgia “back into Russia’s imperial space.” But even as Saakashvili tried to contain the ensuing anti-government sentiment with more realistic demands for a full investigation of the penal system, the scandal erupted into angry–but thus far nonviolent and largely student-led–street protests throughout Georgia, the resignation of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze (overseeing minister of the prison system) and most surprisingly, the resignation of the interior minister, Bacho Akhalia. Akhalia stated he was resigning “despite the fact that I haven’t managed the penitentiary system for [several] years now. Some of the chiefs of the departments started working during my post, therefore I take political and moral responsibility for the fact that we couldn’t prevent the [occurrence] of these terrible incidents.”
The investigation is ongoing. Ten prison officials with direct connections to the abuses at Gldani have been arrested. Vladimer Budukadze (former operative duty inspector, now seeking political asylum in Belgium as he is wanted by the Georgian police), provided Channel 9 with the scandalous video after he was dismissed from the prison in May. He stated that inhuman treatment of prisoners was common practice in almost all Georgian prisons, and that government officials were well aware of the fact. He went on to say that torture was approved of by former interior minister Akhalia, and even President Saakashvili. [The official investigator’s report tells a different story: that Tamaz Tamazashvili, currently serving his term in Gldani No. 8, bribed prison staff for the opportunity to record the abuses, after which he sold the footage for a high sum to Georgian Dream–the main opposition party with which he has close ties.]
Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tughushi, has been appointed as the new Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance of Georgia following Khatuna Kalmakhelidze’s abrupt resignation in light of the prison scandal this week. In his televised public apology, Saakashvili said, “we need brave and bold people who will change everything in the system where everything needs to be changed.” Giorgi Lortkipanidze, who served as acting minister of the prison system, was also present at this press briefing. He previously served as deputy interior minister and was well known for his brutality, leading to the nickname “Borota.”
The U.S. government, the EU, UNICEF, and others watchdogs condemned the abuses and demanded “thorough and transparent investigations;” but many wonder if this will be enough. Political and humanitarian organizations are calling for an investigation of the abuses by the Georgian government and courts–even though high-ranking officials such as the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden of Gldani Prison, and his deputy were all identified as participants in inmate torture. So as mentioned in e recent article from The Atlantic, “President Saakashvili’s pious calls for investigation may resemble Comrade Stalin’s instructions, in November 1938, to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, to find out the truth behind reported violations of socialist legality by the NKVD (the KGB’s infamous predecessor).”