Prison videos put the country on edge

Heartbreaking video footage separately released on September 18 by the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs as well as the opposition-minded Maestro TV and Channel 9, shocked people in Georgia and far beyond. Videos show how the staff of Tbilisi prison No. 8 were involved in prisoners’ torture, rape and abuse. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, the minister in charge of the prison system, a surge of street protests throughout the country and most surprisingly, resignation of Bacho Akhalia, Interior Minister of Georgia. The investigation into the case is ongoing.

According to the statement made by Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava on September 19, ten prison officials were arrested in connection with the inhumane treatment of inmates in Gldani prison. Vladimer Bedukadze, an operative duty inspector at the same prison, has yet to be detained and is currently wanted by the police.

Budukadze, who is now staying in Brussels and provided Channel 9 with the scandalous video, was dismissed from that prison in May of 2012. Bedukadze claimed in a Skype interview with Channel 9 that with the assistance of a high ranking Interior Ministry official, he has managed to record the facts of abuse and rape.

He said the rape and torture of prisoners was a common practice and government officials were well aware of the fact, in particular, mentioning Bacho Akhalaia, the Minister of Interior.

Bedukadze said that Akhalaia was and is the only person who possesses real influence and power in the prison system. He insisted that everything happening in the prison was approved by Akhalaia himself and Mikhail Saakashvili, the President of Georgia. Moreover, according to Bedukadze, the facts of frequent deaths in the prison are closely tied with the torture and abuse of prisoners.

Bedukadze, a wanted man himself, is seeking political asylum in Belgium.

The official investigator’s version tells a different story – that Tamaz Tamazashvili, currently serving his term in the same prison, offered a bribe to prison employees for recording the inhumane treatment of inmates and then was selling the footage for a high price to a third party.

Tamazashvili is closely associated with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream – he is the father of the coalition’s majoritarian MP candidate in Dedoplistskaro and the father-in-law of Ivanishvili’s long-time right-hand man Irakli Garibashvili, who is also running for an MP seat on the Georgian Dream’s party list. The video released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs shows how two prison employees are beating the prisoner.

Other footage that was released by Maestro TV’s Shalva Ramishvili the same day shows approximately twenty members of the staff as well as the head of the prison and his deputy involved in the newly arrived prisoners’ abuse and torture.

According to Ramishvili, who spent several years in jail over bribery charges, such cases were the “usual thing” at prisons, but no one could record it and make it public until now. The journalist criticized official statement made by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, concluding that it is just impossible for one person to hire all staff of the prison to torture and abuse prisoners; consequently, he continued, the facts of torture and the abuse of prisoners weren’t pre-arranged as the government tries to make public believe.

The most shocking, however, were videos shown by Channel 9 TV such as graphic images of prison guards raping inmates with a stick; in separate footage an inmate was seen tied to a cell door and raped with a broomstick.

The issue of prison system has been a concern for local and international human rights organizations for a long time.

George Tughushi, the Public Defender of Georgia, has continually called for the current government and chief prosecutor’s office to investigate facts of tortures and the abuse of prisoners in prison number 8. The Public Defender shared the concerns of civil society of Georgia regarding the increased rate of deaths in the prison system; especially, in prison number 8.

According to 2011 official statistics, 114 prisoners died in Georgian prisons and approximately, 86 of them were in prison number 8.

According to the Public Defender Office the facts of torture and abuse of prisoners appears not only in prison number 8, but in other prisons systems too including Kutaisi number 2 prison.

At the same time, in the recent U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report, “abuse of prisoners and detainees by government officials, as well as dangerously substandard prison conditions” was identified among the three most important human rights problems in Georgia.

Still, the government had been hailing the system’s reforms initiated under the leadership of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze. Clearly, the footage has broken this myth. And despite the fact that both the President of Georgia and PM Vano Merabishvili went with flaming speeches demanding punishment of prison officials, the government has been scrambling to control the PR backlash.

Now with Tughushi having accepted the post of Kalmakhelidze’s, there are questions about what is in store for Georgia.

Apparently, unless all the main government figures are held accountable, public protests will not abate.

The recordings not only shocked the whole country, but also evoked mistrust and hatred toward the whole prison system; and considering the fact that all officials involved in the scandal are top-ranking officials, it may become the reason of total defeat of the current government in the parliamentary elections set for October 1.

While the political opponents of the UNM (United National Movement) will definitely try to take the opportunity to finally end the injustice in Georgia, what UNM’s strategy and tactics will be to save them from failure is hard to imagine.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

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