“Please don’t film this, I will do anything,” begs a young inmate as he is sexually assaulted with a broom while being handcuffed to the bars of his cell. “Does it hurt?” calmly inquires a voice behind the camera.
When Georgian television stations warned their audiences on September 18 that they were about to roll disturbing imagery of prison abuse, viewers still did not know just how harrowing the glimpse of the reality behind bars was going to be.
Human rights advocates, both Georgian and foreign, have long sounded the alarm over allegations of torture in Georgian prisons, but Georgia had to see it to believe it.
Some viewers cried, while others watched in silent shock as several wardens at Prison 8, in the Tbilisi outskirts, stomped on a prisoner, with other inmates purportedly awaiting their turn. Television stations critical of the government took it to another extreme, airing videos of prisoners, including allegedly juvenile detainees, being humiliated and sexually abused.
The initial shock gave way to anger that spilled into the streets of Tbilisi and several other cities last night and today, straining an atmosphere already taut with tensions ahead of the country's October 1 parliamentary elections.
At around midnight, students, rights activists, opposition politicians, some carrying posters reading "We Are [expletive] Angry!" and "Rape Me!," gathered near the Tbilisi Philharmonia, where they believed that President Mikheil Saakashvili was attending a performance.
Distraught family members of Prison 8 inmates rushed to the jail last night. The pro-opposition Maestro television channel showed an emotional woman claiming she had identified her son in the videos. “He told me ‘Don’t tell anyone or they will kill me,’” the woman cried.
Forces across Georgia’s political divide have quickly turned the scandal -- already dubbed Georgia’s Abu Ghraib -- into campaign fodder. With the October 1 parliamentary vote around the corner, the scandal threatens the ruling United National Movement Party's standing in the race.
Heads have started to roll in the government. Several prison officials were arrested, the minister responsible for jails, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, has tendered her resignation, and police troops have been sent into the prisons.
But local civil society organizations have demanded further resignations -- Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, a former prison system boss long accused of prisoner mistreatment, Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili and Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava.*
The government and the officials cited have not responded to the demands. In the past, Akhalaia has denied accusations of wrongdoing.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, describing himself as "very angry" at the videos, has vowed that the perpetrators "will spend many years in prison" and that he, "personally," will guarantee prisoners' rights. Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, the powerful former interior minister, echoed that line, while
National Security Council Chairperson Giga Bokeria conceded that the government had not paid enough attention to human rights activists' warnings. (The ombudsman's annual human-rights report was presented to a half-empty parliament last year.) At the same time, hints are being dropped about an alleged opposition-sponsored scheme to discredit the authorities. “We mainly seek to reveal the group of criminals, who tried to discredit our system,”said Kalmakhelidze.The nature of the videos, however, suggests common practice rather than isolated incidents.
While being beaten and abused, the inmates are forced to denounce the Soviet-born system of criminal authorities known as "thieves-in-law." Georgian officials have long boasted of eradicating this mafia system, and have brushed aside human rights criticism of the controversial tactics employed in their crackdown.
In its zeal to wipe out the criminal institutions of the past, though, Georgia may have replaced one bad system with another.
*The list of civil society organizations includes the Open Society Georgia Foundation and organizations funded by OSGF. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundation, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations' network.