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You're reading: Thousands in Georgia protest against prisoner abuse

TBILISI - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed to punish those responsible for torturing and raping prisoners, after a video of abuse in a jail sparked angry street protests two weeks before a parliamentary election.

The demonstrations erupted in the capital Tbilisi on Tuesday
night after footage of the torture was shown on pro-opposition
television channels. Thousands of people joined the protests on
Wednesday, blocking two main streets and calling for the
resignation of senior ministers.

The government said the video had been staged and recorded
by guards who had been bribed by “politically motivated
persons”.

The prosecutor’s office said 10 people had been arrested
including the head of the prison in Tbilisi, two deputies and a
number of guards. The prisons minister said she was resigning.

“Tonight, I tell all the victims of these inhuman actions
and the whole nation that the Georgia we have built and we are
all building together shall not and will not tolerate such
behaviour – in its prisons or anywhere else,” Saakashvili said
in a statement issued in the early hours of Wednesday.

“Those who committed these crimes will spend long years in
jail, as will those who bribed guards to stage these horrors and
film them,” he said.

Later Saakashvili said radical reforms should be enacted in
the former Soviet republic’s penitentiary system and ordered
patrol policemen to take on prison duties while reforms were
worked out.

“This system, the way it is now, should be entirely
abolished,” Saakashvili said at the meeting with the prime
minister, justice minister and prosecutor-general.

The video shows groups of guards beating, punching and
humiliating prisoners, and inmates raped with objects. It was
screened by two opposition-leaning television channels, one
owned by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream
coalition is challenging Saakashvili’s ruling United National
Movement in an Oct. 1 parliamentary election.

“MISHA, GO!”

Protesters demanded the resignation of the justice and
interior ministers and an independent investigation. Some of
them chanted: “Misha, go!”, referring to Saakashvili.

Similar protests were held in several major towns in
Georgia, a transit route for oil and gas supplies across the
volatile Caucasus.

A few political leaders, including Ivanishvili, joined the
protests, but called for calm ahead of the election.

“Under no circumstances should you start unorganised street
protests and under no circumstances should your actions be
governed by anger,” Ivanishvili said.

Human rights groups and the U.S. Embassy condemned the
prisoner abuse and called on the government to conduct a prompt
and independent investigation.

Georgian Dream, which unites several opposition parties, has
attracted large numbers to its rallies, but still trails the
ruling party in opinion polls.

Ivanishvili, 56, has a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine
at $6.4 billion. He and other opponents accuse Saakashvili of
curbing freedoms and criticise him for leading Georgia into a
disastrous war with Russia in August 2008.

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