- Associated Press - Thursday, September 20, 2012

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Street protests against the brutal abuse of prisoners escalated Thursday in the Georgian capital, fueling anger against the Western-allied government and possibly boosting support for the opposition before a tight parliamentary election.

Two days after television stations aired videos of guards beating inmates and raping them with truncheons and brooms, thousands rallied outside the Interior Ministry and the Tbilisi prison where the abuse occurred. The protesters, some carrying brooms, then marched down the capital’s main avenue to the presidential palace to demand the ouster of the interior minister.

Veriko Kapanadze said her son looked scared and tense when she last visited him in prison.

“Now I understand why. It’s like a Gestapo prison,” she said.

“I’m awfully worried for my son,” said another protester, Nargiza Georgadze.

President Mikhail Saakashvili has sought to defuse tensions by accepting the resignation of a minister in charge of penitentiaries and completely reshuffling prison personnel. Mr. Saakashvili further sought to limit the damage by putting Georgia’s ombudsman in charge of penitentiaries, voicing hope that he would “fully reform the system.”

But the simmering public anger threatens to damage his party in the Oct. 1 parliamentary vote and may boost support for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Even some youths linked to the ruling party joined Thursday’s street protests as Mr. Saakashvili and his loyalists sought to distance themselves from the incident.

Mr. Saakashvili, who has led Georgia since 2004, has remained popular thanks to economic reforms, anti-corruption efforts and moves to integrate closer into the West, but his image was dented by his handling of a disastrous war with Russia in 2008. The opposition also has accused Mr. Saakashvili of a systematic clampdown on dissent and independent media.

Mr. Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who sold his extensive business assets in Russia to enter Georgian politics, said the videos had confirmed his longtime suspicions about Georgian authorities’ brutality.

Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Free Democrats party, which is part of Mr. Ivanishvili’s coalition, said the prison videos have shattered the ruling party’s image. “It has unmasked Saakashvili’s regime, exposing a sadistic mechanism hidden behind its glossy facade,” he said.

Mr. Saakashvili and his allies have described Mr. Ivanishvili as a Moscow pawn who aims to take the tiny nation on the Black Sea back into the Russian fold. Mr. Ivanishvili has rejected their allegations, pledging to continue a course toward integration into the West while moving to normalize ties with Russia, which have remained frozen after the war.

Stakes in the parliamentary vote are high. Mr. Saakashvili, who is serving a second and final term that expires next year, has pushed through laws that make the prime minister more powerful than the president. If Mr. Ivanishvili’s coalition wins, he would become prime minister.

Georgian prosecutors have arrested 12 prison officials, and Mr. Saakashvili has vowed that all those responsible will be severely punished. At the same time, the Georgian Interior Ministry has accused Mr. Saakashvili’s political foes of staging the videos, claiming prison officials were paid to orchestrate and film the abuse by an inmate with connections to Mr. Ivanishvili. Mr. Ivanishvili has rejected the claim.

The prison abuse videos were broadcast by the Maestro and Channel 9 television stations; the latter belongs to Mr. Ivanishvili. They said they got the videos from a prison official who has fled abroad.

Some analysts said the incident will play into Mr. Ivanishvili’s hands in the polls.

“The prison torture videos have dealt a serious blow to the ruling party’s authority,” said Irakly Menagarishvili, a former Georgian foreign minister who now heads the Center for Strategic Research, an independent think tank.

He said Mr. Saakashvili needs to act quickly to save his United National Movement party from being beaten, and he added that the government has failed to contain the fallout.

Alexander Rondeli, an independent political expert in Tbilisi, agreed that the scandal would take a toll on Mr. Saakashvili’s party.

Mr. Saakashvili may have quelled some of the anger by giving the penitentiaries minister’s job to Giorgy Tugushi, the ombudsman who long has criticized Georgia’s prisons.

“Now I have a chance to completely reorganize the system and ensure the protection of inmates’ rights,” Mr. Tugushi said.

Gigi Tsereteli, a deputy speaker of parliament from Mr. Saakashvili’s ruling party, sought to play down the prison videos’ impact. He said the “intolerable and outrageous” prison videos have taught a “hard lesson to the government,” but he insisted it wouldn’t lead to the ruling party’s defeat at the polls.

“The government has reacted quickly: A minister has stepped down, and the perpetrators of these crimes have been arrested,” he told the Associated Press. “I don’t think it will affect our electorate. People have long made their choice in our favor.”

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