Georgia’s new political era may have begun, according to some, with political arrests, but it's now switching to political releases.
Some 190 prisoners marched out of Georgia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons on January 13 after the parliament signed an amnesty bill into law over objections from President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority. Among those amnestied under the bill were prisoners convicted of spying for Russia, participating in illegal anti-government demonstrations and army mutinies.
With reporters and relatives massed at prison gates yesterday, some prisoners started celebrating their freedom right away, setting up food and drinks on car hoods.
The joyous mood was not shared by the president, whose amnesty veto was overturned by parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s supporters. “Today the new government freed Russian spies,” the president charged. “This is a problem for the state, for the security.” He claimed that the mass release of convicts may bring to naught his administration’s attempts to build a safe, crime-free state.
But the constant Russian spy conspiracies of the past, sometimes dramatized on Saakashvili-friendly TV channels, complete with secret messages encoded in a song or sent via flashlights, have come to be taken with a large grain of salt by Georgian society.
The covert footage released by the Georgian Interior Ministry implicates the Georgian Dream and its billionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in attempts to bribe police officers to stage the beatings of a youth activist and army recruits, among other scenarios; events that, when made public, would help tarnish the ruling United National Movement's public standing.
One video shows a purported Georgian Dream representative offering $50,000 to a police official and requesting him to record the beating on camera. “We will give you a man… from the youth wing of the party… just make sure not to beat him to death,” the man says.
The Georgian Dream described the videos as fabricated. “The government is busy putting together a false TV series,” with a script long familiar to viewers, the coalition said in a statement.
The videos were met with a dose of public skepticism. Whether or not they question the authenticity of the police recordings, many commentators say that the alleged evidence will neither diminish nor redirect public anger at the government over the earlier exposure of torture in Georgia's Prison .
After this past week's revelations of the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners, everyone agrees that something is rotten in the country of Georgia. But the question is: what's really going to be done about it?
For now, there're a lot of promises, and a lot of show -- be it the televised updates about the government's investigation into the abuse for Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili or the opposition Georgian Dream coalition's frenzied cries for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation.
The media is part of it, too. During a September 21 tour of prison #8, the facility outside of Tbilisi where the abuse was filmed, broadcast outlets eagerly scampered up to prison-cell windows to ask prisoners if the abuse continues. It was as if the videos showing the sadistic humiliation of inmates were the first these reporters had heard of it.
Sadly, for many of them, it may well have been. The reports from prison activists and Georgia's ombudsman detailing physical abuse in the country's overstuffed jails have been coming for years. In 2011, Georgia’s public defender, Giorgi Tugushi, now its newly appointed prison minister, reported that 40 of the 140 people who died in Georgian jails in 2011 showed signs of physical injury.
But the government-friendly national broadcasters were preoccupied with promoting the government's achievements, while opposition-minded press often discredited their coverage of Georgia's human rights woes by frosting it with sensationalism and political bias.
The government, for its part, often appeared to prefer to focus on the bright and the beautiful -- the opening of medical clinics, the Disney-Land makeover of Batumi or the comforts of safer, crime-free streets.
Critics have long alleged that abuse of prisoners was promoted actively by Akhalaia during his administration of the penitentiary system from 2005 to 2008.
In a terse statement, Akhalaia underlined the amount of time since he had left his prison post, but conceded that "some officials" implicated in the scandal were hired under his tenure, adding that he feels "moral as well as political responsibility that we were not able to eradicate" the "terrible practice" of prisoner abuse.
Largely kept under wraps from public view since the scandal broke on September 18, Akhalaia has been a prime target for civil society organizations*. The Tbilisi street protesters, who demanded his removal, now are after his arrest.
The news of his resignation was greeted by raucous cheers and car-horn-honking from outside Tbilisi's Philharmonia, where a late-night protest was underway.
Thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi on September 20 and convicts’ relatives continued to besiege Prison 8, the notorious site of the abuse, amid rumors of ongoing torture and intimidation of inmates following the videos' release. Mothers pushed themselves against prison gates, demanding meetings with their sons out of fear that some inmates may face retribution for revealing violence inside the prison.
For a president whose political party faces a hotly contested parliamentary election in just over a week, the situation is far from ideal. With the clock ticking, Mikheil Saakashvili appointed ombudsman Giorgi Tugushvili, a frequent critic of abuses in Georgian prisons as the new head of the correctional system.
Some welcomed the move, while particularly vocal government critics lambasted the ex-ombudsman for accepting the job. The government, in the past, has paid scant attention to his reports of abuses. Others argue that the test for the new prison minister will be his eagerness to take on high-ranking officials, such as Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who ran the prison system from 2005 to 2008, for their suspected contributions to the practice of prisoner abuse.