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You're reading: Georgian protesters demand prosecutions for abuse

TBILISI, Georgia — Thousands rallied Friday in Georgia to demand the prosecution of top officials fired in a prison abuse scandal that threatens to unseat the governing pro-Western party in the country's Oct. 1 parliamentary election.

The protests, sparked by graphic videos showing guards
in the former Soviet republic brutally beating prisoners and raping them
with truncheons and broom handles, have ratcheted up the pressure on
President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party is facing a tough opposition
challenge.

Saakashvili has sought to contain the damage by firing his interior and prison ministers and reshuffling prison personnel.

But
despite that, protesters increased their demands as rallies went into a
third day Friday, insisting that former Interior Minister Bacho
Akhalaya and his brother, who was a deputy defense minister, be brought
to justice.

An opposition victory in the Oct. 1 vote would make
its multibillionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s prime
minister. Ivanishvili would then become Georgia’s No. 1 leader next
year, after Saakashvili’s second and final term ends, thanks to a
political reform that has shifted powers from the presidency to the
parliament and the prime minister.

Ivanishvili and his allies have
cautioned their supporters against taking to the streets, apparently
fearing a government crackdown that may derail the vote and steal what
they hope will be their victory.

“Elections must be held in a
quiet environment,” Manana Kobakhidze, a leading member of Ivanishvili’s
Georgian Dream coalition, said on the independent Maestro television
late Thursday. “Let people express their opinion at the polls.”

Students,
who have been the main driving force in the protests, heeded the call
Friday, vowing to suspend their involvement in street protests until
after the vote. But many other Georgians outraged by the prison abuse
continued to protest.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered overnight
outside the Gldani prison in Tbilisi where the videos of abuse were
filmed, stopping several prison vans and asking prisoners inside whether
they had suffered abuse.

One prisoner, who identified himself as
Shota Nikolaishvili, shouted back, saying that he had been repeatedly
beaten by guards. “I have lost my health here and I fear nothing now,”
he cried.

Demonstrators also gathered outside another prison in
the city of Rustavi. One protester, Mary Kiknadze, said her son in there
had been repeatedly beaten.

“They punished him for letting me
know about their abuse of prisoners,” she said. “This government is
torturing people to make them confess to the crimes they haven’t
committed.”

The European Union has strongly condemned the abuse of prisoners and urged the Georgian authorities to punish the culprits.

EU
foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she is “appalled by the
shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates in Gldani prison.”

“It
is of vital importance that these and other incidents are thoroughly
and transparently investigated and that those responsible are held to
account,” she said in a statement.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman
for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, urged Georgia to
“promptly, impartially and effectively” investigate all cases of abuse
and take steps “to ensure that prisons and detention centres are managed
in line with international human rights law and standards.”

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