New Torture Video Undermines Saakashvili’s Party Ahead of Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 119

Georgia's Prison Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze is stepping down amid claims of prison abuse

At a specially called press conference, Georgia’s Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili told foreign diplomats that the Georgian security services had evidence proving beyond doubt that members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team were involved in torture and rape of inmates as well as other human rights abuses (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26191).

 

At the same press conference the authorities demonstrated a video that was recovered from a secret weapons cache discovered in the region of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti. The video showed an interrogation of suspects accused of committing terrorist attacks in Tbilisi and other cities of the country after the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war (http://humanrightshouse.org/noop/page.php?p=Articles/19362). The suspects were depicted being tortured and subjected to sexual violence to make them confess to the crimes. Despite the inmates’ faces being obscured to protect their identities, many people in Tbilisi are convinced that the individuals recorded in the video were from the Gali district of Abkhazia, who were arrested on suspicion of committing terrorist attacks in 2009–2010. That wave of attacks included the explosion near the Embassy of the United States in Tbilisi (http://lenta.ru/news/2011/07/28/bobmings/).

 

On June 22, in an interview with Jamestown, a former member of the Georgian parliament and human rights activist Yelena Tevdoradze, noted that despite the torture and rape, the suspects did not plead guilty and the authorities eventually had to release them. “One of the suspects was released and the second one went on trial, not for the terrorist attack, but only for storing illegal drugs,” Tevdoradze said.

 

The US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, was not present at the video’s showing, but he stated later that he was “shocked” by the evidence of torture and violence toward criminal suspects and demanded a meticulous investigation into the matter (http://www.pirweli.com.ge/en/?menuid=8&id=1054). Notably, the Georgian authorities decided to show this shocking video recording to foreign diplomats just days after the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution on June 14, condemning Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government for “politically motivated” arrests of the members of the Georgian president’s team. These arrests have included former interior minister and the general secretary of the presidential party, the United National Movement (UNM), Vano Merabishvili (http://www.tabula.ge/en/story/72163-saakashvili-says-statement-of-us-congress-is-heartbreaking).

 

Previously, Merabishvili’s fellow party members stated that even if he was behind bars he would still take part in the UNM’s planned presidential primary (http://dfwatch.net/saakashvilis-party-to-hold-primary-while-gen-secretary-is-in-jail-21063). But prior to this move, Merabishvili and his lawyers will have to answer the investigators’ questions about the appalling video. Interior Minister Garibashvili specifically emphasized that Merabishvili “headed the Ministry [of Internal Affairs] at the time when the suspects were tortured and raped, so he is unlikely to avoid responsibility for the actions of his subordinates” (http://www.apsny.ge/2013/pol/1371881819.php). Other Georgian politicians go even further, demanding that President Saakashvili be put on trial and that his party be outlawed as a “criminal organization.” The former speaker of the parliament and Saakashvili’s ally during the 2003 Rose Revolution, Nino Burjanadze, made such a proposal. “I reckon that the leaders of the regime who established a criminal system should be tried in the same way as the Germans tried the Nazis at the time,” Burjanadze told Jamestown on June 22. In Burjanadze’s opinion, Merabishvili lost his already meager chances in the upcoming presidential elections in October. “Merabishvili did not have any chances for victory, but the [United] National Movement tried to come in second place so that after the Saakashvili party’s ‘rebranding’ they can remain in big politics [sic],” she added.

 

The opposition regards these accusations as speculation: “The authorities are simply trying to eliminate dangerous political competitors, using the means of falsification and slander,” UNM parliamentarian David Darchiashvili told Jamestown on June 21. As he noted, “There is not any proof that Vano Merabishvili knew about torture and rape that some servicemen of the interior ministry applied to suspects.”

 

Speaking on Georgian TV, Saakashvili noted that he did not deny his political responsibility for what happened, but he considered the corrupt officials from former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s era who retained their positions after the Rose Revolution as the primary culprits for the crime. Saakashvili also vilified the “traitors” who switched sides in favor of Prime Minister Ivanishvili and were now acting on the orders of the new authorities to discredit the president and his party (http://www.pirweli.com.ge/rus/?menuid=8&id=7057).

 

Even though the video was not shown to the general public, the Georgian population’s reaction was still turbulent and emotional. Experts reckon that the scandal significantly undermined the presidential party’s position. Very few people in Georgia would justify such methods for fighting terrorism, especially as the suspects who were subjected to torture and sexual violence were eventually exonerated. At the same time, the newly unveiled evidence, which renders the presidential party in a negative light, has clear connections to the upcoming presidential elections. According to Iosif Tsintsadze, the Rector of the Georgian Diplomatic Academy, “Ivanishvili’s problem is that despite the domination of the Georgian Dream Coalition, its candidate for the presidency, the philosopher, Georgy Margvelashvili, is patently weak and may not be able to compete very well against Vano Merabishvili, as opposed to against Nino Burjanadze” (Author’s interview, June 21). “What is going on now is only the ‘warm up.’ The election campaign promises to be very interesting. There will be a clash between the authority of Ivanishvili and the authority of Burjanadze,” Tsintsadze predicted. Other observers are also convinced that by attacking members of President Saakashvili’s team, the real contenders for the presidential position are instead trying to appear “more radical and uncompromising” compared to the previous authorities. This approach boosts their chances of winning over the protest vote.

 

UNM, however, does not intend to surrender without a fight. In spite of powerful media pressure and negative public opinion, the presidential party appears to be planning to take an active part in the elections and argue that former Minister Merabishvili is not culpable for the crimes committed by certain police officers. Enormous posters of Merabishvili, demanding his release, have already been erected not only on the facade of the UNM headquarters, but also on other buildings in Tbilisi (http://en.trend.az/regions/scaucasus/georgia/2163034.html). “Merabishvili’s participation in the primaries allows the presidential party to be in touch with him and appeal to the international community, making him a symbol of encroachment on democracy by Ivanishvili’s government,” an expert at the news agency GHN, Nika Imnaishvili, told Jamestown on June 21.

 

Nevertheless, Georgian society’s special sensitivity to any episodes involving sexual violence makes the challenge of returning to power before Mikheil Saakashvili and his allies quite complicated, if not nearly insurmountable.