Prison abuse scandal rocks Georgia election

Saakashvili sacks officials but says shock TV footage is an attempt to destabilise country ahead of vote

Moscow

A prison abuse scandal threatens to inflame tensions in Georgia, where in a fortnight the country's pro-Western President will face a vote of confidence in parliamentary elections, in which his leading foe is a billionaire oligarch.

Protests hit several Georgian cities after opposition television channels showed videos that feature shocking images of a group of prison guards violently and sexually abusing inmates at a penitentiary facility near the capital, Tbilisi. Mikheil Saakashvili's government acted swiftly to fire officials responsible, but also strongly insinuated that the violence had been staged as a political provocation, an allegation the opposition described as ridiculous.

Parliamentary elections on 1 October will see Mr Saakashvili's party stand against Georgian Dream, a coalition of opposition forces gathered around Bizdina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, and came out of self-imposed seclusion last autumn to announce a dramatic entry into politics.

Coming so soon before the elections, the videos could damage Mr Saakashvili's credentials as a moderniser.

The Prisons Minister resigned immediately, and Mr Saakashvili promised that all of those behind the abuse would be brought to justice. "Our nation is based on the respect of human rights and human dignity and it will get rid of this ugly violence," the Georgian President said in a statement yesterday. "Those who committed these crimes will spend long years in jail." All prison staff were suspended and police were sent into prisons to take their place yesterday.

The government also insinuated that the videos were part of a calculated plot, presumably to destabilise the country ahead of elections. However, Mr Saakashvili also appeared to indicate that all was not as it seemed, referring in his statement to people who "bribed guards to stage these horrors and film them", though a government spokesperson could not say whether there is any actual evidence for this.

The insinuation that the crimes were staged did not appear on a version of Mr Saakashvili's statement posted to the Presidential website. However, the country's Interior Ministry issued a statement also alleging that the abuse was a set-up. "An investigation revealed that several members of the jail's security department had been involved in a plan to carry out abusive activities and record them," it said. "Evidence shows that payments were made to coordinate and stage these appalling activities." It did not release any of the "evidence" it referred to.

Mr Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003 and carried out a number of sweeping reforms, promising to bring Georgia closer to the EU and Nato. But support for him has waned after two terms in office, and his critics say he shows increasingly dictatorial streaks.

Mr Ivanishvili, rated by Forbes magazine as among the richest 200 people in the world, yesterday called on his supporters not engage in street protests or violence over the torture videos, but to express their grievances at the ballot box next month.

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