TBILISI - The political leadership of Georgia is reeling after shocking footage of torture and rape in a Tbilisi prison that was recorded on a hidden camera was shown on the opposition party’s television channel on Tuesday evening.
Mass protests have continued through the week, as Vladimir Bedukadze, who worked at the jail and leaked the film to the media, has fled to Brussels. According to Bedukadze, the torture was done with the explicit knowledge and encouragement of both Georgia’s Corrections Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, and Interior Minister Bachana Akhalaia. (Reuters is reporting that Akhalaia handed in his resignation on Thursday evening over the scandal.)
In the tape made by Bedukadze, viewers can see how upon arrival the prisoners are taken from the so-called “quarantine” room and are brutally kicked before being taken to their cells. Several of them are raped with a rubber club or broom handle.
“Of course, we knew that something like this was happening in our prisons, but we have never seen anything like this with our own eyes,” said Nana Kakabdze, leader of a Georgian human rights organization. “We are in shock and demand punishment for the perpetrators.”
Just an hour after the disturbing images were shown on television, human rights activists and relatives of prisoners gathered around prison number 8, where the abuses were filmed, as well as in the center of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, demanding the removal of top officials. Protests also broke out in Batumi, Poti and Gori.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili made a special television appearance late on Tuesday night, promising to “punish the guilty and not allow violations of human rights in prisons, in general.” Prisons chief Kalmakhelidze, who had been criticized before, was removed from her post, the first head to roll in the developing scandal. The general prosecutor Murtaz Zoldelava announced the arrest of around 10 employees at prison number 8.
A setup of the opposition?
The opposition is trying to use this scandal to debunk the West’s view of Georgia as a “model democracy” in the Caucasus region, particularly in the upcoming parliamentary elections on October 1. At the same time, some in the ruling party say the torture and the film in prison number 8 was staged by opponents of the regime in order to discredit the president and those around him.
According to the chief prosecutor, the main whistle-blower, Bedukadze, organized not only the hidden camera but also the torture itself, and was paid to do so by some third party. Bedukadze is wanted in Georgia, but fled to Brussels after leaking the video.
The person that Zoldelava has accused of acting as a middle man between the prison guards and the third party who supposedly paid them to torture prisoners is Tamaza Tamazashvili, a prisoner at prison number 8 who Zoldelava says is a close associate of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire Georgian opposition leader.