Students in Tbilisi protest against abuse of prisoners

Demonstrators burning brooms in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on September 20. (WNV/Giorgi Papalashvili)

For more than a week now, the Georgian capital Tbilisi has been the scene of daily protests, which started after two TV channels released videos of prisoner abuse on September 18. The videos showed inmates of a prison in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani being beaten up, humiliated and abused by prison guards. Since then, several other videos of prisoner abuse from other prisons across the country have surfaced. One of the videos contained images of a male prisoner being raped with a broomstick, providing the protesters with a symbol as they started carrying and burning broomsticks during their demonstrations.

Immediately after the first videos were shown on TV, people started to gather in a spontaneous protest near the State Concert Hall in the center of Tbilisi, which has remained one of the main locations for daily demonstrations and gatherings. There have protests near Tbilisi State University, outside of Gldani Prison and in other Georgian towns as well. The demonstrations usually attract thousands, although the numbers seem to have dropped since the weekend.

While many people find the timing of the appearance of the videos suspect — less than two weeks before hotly contested parliamentary elections — the anger over the videos is genuine and crosses lines of political affiliation. In the October 1 parliamentary elections the popular opposition movement Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is taking on the United National Movement of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili came to power with massive popular support in the 2003 Rose Revolution, but has since lost much of his popularity.

Despite the approaching elections, the protests are noticeably non-political. Many participants wear T-shirts with the logo of the opposition movement Georgian Dream, but most people do not show any party affiliation. People of all ages attend the protests, though the vast majority are students and young people. Many of them carry signs with anarchistic slogans such as “Fuck the System,” “Your Democracy Hurts” and “Peoples Power” [sic]. In the second week of the protests, other forms of protesting have popped up, including a protest song posted on YouTube, which has now been viewed nearly 100,000 times.

Initially the protests seemed rather spontaneous, but several student organizations soon took the organization of the demonstrations into their hands. The most visible of these groups, Laboratoria 1918, announced on September 26 that they would refrain from involvement in the protests until the elections on Monday. Currently, Tbilisi State University is the gathering point for demonstrations and the starting point of protest marches in the afternoons, while in the evenings smaller groups of people come together at the State Concert Hall not far from the university.

So far, the protests have been peaceful, though during the weekend of September 22 and 23 the police arrested several of the organizers and sentenced them to administrative detention, effectively keeping them in prison until after the elections.

Georgia has one of the highest numbers of prisoners per capita in the world. Especially in Tbilisi, many people know someone who is or has been in prison. A common reaction I heard several times in recent days sums it up: “It can happen to anyone. Anyone can get caught in the judicial system and end up in prison over a minor offense.”

In recent years, reports on the human rights situation in Georgia from international organizations and from Georgia’s Public Defender have consistently documented the abuse of prisoners by prison guards. These reports were consistently ignored by the government and the parliament. The issue didn’t attract a lot of attention from the general public either. The recent videos, however, brought the problem out in the open and were for many people confirmation of long-existing rumors.

One of the initial demands of the protesters was the resignation of the powerful Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who many people believe was personally involved in ordering the abuse of prisoners. Within the first few days of the protests, both the minister responsible for the prison system and Akhalaia resigned. The former was replaced by the Public Defender, putting the person whose critical reports were ignored by the government for so long in charge of reforming the prison system. Some prison staff have been arrested and charged with inhumane treatment of prisoners, but inmates claim that the abuse is continuing. Demonstrators remain skeptical of the government’s promises to overhaul the prison system. Now, the main demand of the protesters is that Akhalaia be brought to justice and together with him several other state officials deemed responsible for the abuse in prisons. They are also demanding free and fair parliamentary elections on October 1.

What will happen with the protests after the elections on October 1 is anyone’s guess. It seems unlikely that the current, non-politicized protests will be able to keep their momentum and they might well be swallowed up by bigger protests contesting the election results. The organizers of the student demonstrations, however, say they will continue to organize large scale protests, that will include music and performances. Another thing that remains to be seen is if and how the announced reforms of the prison system will take shape.

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