TBILISI, Georgia — About 1,000 protesters rallied in Georgia's capital on Monday to demand the prosecution of a former minister fired in a prison abuse scandal that has heightened tensions in the ex-Soviet nation ahead of a fiercely-contested parliamentary elections.
The demonstration was a continuation of a series of rallies last week, which were sparked by graphic videos showing guards in the ex-Soviet nation brutally beating prisoners and raping them with truncheons and broom handles.
The videos ratcheted up the pressure on pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party is facing a tough opposition challenge in the Oct. 1 parliamentary vote. Saakashvili has accused his main rival, billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, of timing the release of the videos to the election — the allegations Ivanishvili has denied.
On Monday, Georgia’s Interior Ministry announced the arrest of four opposition-linked suspects. It said the suspects were linked to a candidate of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition and alleged that the opposition had sought to encourage police officers to resign in protest over the prison abuse scandal in order to step up pressure on the government.
The opposition has dismissed the claims as a sham.
“Lies and violence have been the main weapons of Saakashvili’s government in the fight against political opponents and the Georgian people,” it said in a statement. “An end to this violent policy will be put on Oct. 1.”
An opposition victory in the vote would make Ivanishvili Georgia’s prime minister and Georgia’s No. 1 leader starting next year when Saakashvili’s second and final term ends, thanks to a political reform that will shift powers from the presidency to the parliament and the prime minister.
Saakashvili has sought to assuage the public anger by firing Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaya and the minister in charge of the penitentiary system. He also has completely reshuffled prison personnel, suspending all former guards and replacing them with regular police.
But despite his efforts to control the damage, students, who spearheaded last week’s protests, returned to the streets of Tbilisi on Monday to continue pushing for Akhalaya to be prosecuted.