TBILISI, Georgia — Videos showing the abuse of prisoners in Georgia have sparked street protests and an exchange of harsh accusations between the government and the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections.
Hundreds of protesters blocked traffic in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, in the overnight hours after two television stations aired graphic videos Tuesday of guards abusing prisoners, including the footage in which prisoners are raped with police truncheons and broom handles.
President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party is facing a tough opposition challenge in the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections, quickly pledged to punish all the culprits and completely reshuffle prison personnel. A cabinet minister in charge of the country's penitentiary system stepped down, and prosecutors said they arrested 12 prison officials in the case.
"Everyone who has masterminded it, everyone who has perpetrated it, everyone who has done it and allowed it to happen deserves the strictest – I repeat, the strictest – punishment," Saakashvili said in a video statement.
The president later discussed the incident with top government officials, saying that hundreds of prison guards in all Georgian prisons would be temporarily suspended pending an official probe and immediately replaced by police officers. He said the nation's penitentiaries have suffered a "systemic failure."
The Interior Ministry on Wednesday blamed Saakashvili's political foes for staging the videos, claiming prison officials were paid for orchestrating and filming the abuse by an inmate with connections to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Saakashvili himself made a similar hint, describing the incident as fallout from a "war of compromising materials," although he didn't elaborate.
Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man and the head of the leading opposition party, Georgian Dream, rejected the Interior Ministry claims.
Saakashvili, who has led Georgia since 2004, has remained popular thanks to his economic reforms, anti-corruption efforts and moves to integrate closer into the West. At the same time, his approval ratings have been dented by his handling of a disastrous war with Russia in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian republics, which left them fully allied with Moscow and beyond Tbilisi's control. The opposition has also accused Saakashvili of a systematic clampdown on dissent and independent media.
Ivanishvili and his supporters have faced an array of legal actions by authorities clearly concerned about his party gaining ground in polls in recent months. The multibillionaire said the prison video confirmed his longtime suspicions. "I knew very well that we had such violent authorities," he said.
The prison abuse videos were broadcast by Maestro and Channel 9 television stations, which said they got the footage filmed this year from a former prison official, who is currently abroad. The official, Vladimir Bedukadze, told Channel 9, which belongs to Ivanishvili, that the guards abused prisoners on direct orders from the nation's interior minister. Bedukadze didn't offer any proof for his claims.