Sept. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Georgia appointed a new minister to oversee prisons as protests over abuse of inmates less than two weeks before parliamentary elections prompted the resignation of the Black Sea nation’s interior minister.
In a televised speech today, President Mikheil Saakashvili named Giorgi Tugushi as Corrections and Legal Assistance Minister. Tugushi, 35, replaced Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, who resigned yesterday after two TV channels showed videos of prisoners being beaten and raped in Gldani jail No. 8 in the capital, Tbilisi.
Thousands gathered in Tbilisi to denounce the abuse, with a student rally marching to the presidential palace to demand the departure of Interior Minister Bachana Akhalaia. The minister resigned later in the day, the Rustavi-2 television channel reported, citing a statement from Akhalaia.
The prison scandal comes 11 days before an Oct. 1 parliamentary ballot in which Saakashvili’s ruling party faces a challenge from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream. The organizers of the rallies have pledged to maintain pressure on the authorities until their demands are met.
Four of the 10 people detained in connection with the allegations of abuse have been sentenced to pre-trial incarceration, Rustavi-2 reported, citing a Tbilisi court decision. As many as 900 family members have been allowed into the Gldani prison since yesterday to visit inmates, it said.
“I can make radical changes to the system and protect prisoners,” said Tugushi, Georgia’s public defender since 2009.
The opposition Georgian Dream condemned the prison abuse and warned the footage may become “a new element in a smear campaign,” according to an e-mailed statement that cited former Foreign Minister Tedo Japaridze.
Manana Abuseridze said at the rally that her brother died in prison in 2010 at the age of 40.
“He told me that they used to beat him up,” she said. “I fought but no one helped, not even the public defender who was appointed today. I trust no one.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the video images “horrifying” and “disturbing.”
“Georgia should remember its obligations to uphold human rights as a member of the OSCE family,” President Riccardo Migliori said today in an e-mailed statement. “I welcome the news that several prison officials have been arrested in relation to the abuse, as well as President Mikheil Saakashvili’s assurances that those responsible will face the strictest punishment.”
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