Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 8

A wave of strikes by inmates at prisons across Georgia is part of the criminal world’s carefully crafted plan to resist government efforts to assert their authority in the penal system.

The first strike began on December 24 in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, and quickly spread to prisons in other cities. Although Georgian Special Forces managed to put down the mutiny by January 6, fears that the unrest will boil over again remain.

On December 22 Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed Justice Minister Kote Kemularia and Shota Kopadze, chief of the ministry’s corrections department. Both men have been under fire from civic watchdogs for suspected mistreatment of prisoners and deal making with jailed crime bosses. Reportedly the Ministry of Justice and incarcerated crime bosses share joint “control” over the prisons, a practice leftover from the Soviet era.

Saakashvili appointed Ghia Kavtaradze, chair of the Central Electoral Commission, as the new minister of justice and 25-year-old Bacho Akhalaia, a deputy public defender, as chief of the corrections department. The president declared, “absolutely different kinds of people” with a new vision and ideas are needed in the Georgian penal system, because they would manage the system much better than the “experienced” officials of the older generation.

Last August Saakashvili established a prison-monitoring group to investigate complaints regarding prison conditions and inmate treatment. Over the past three months the group, composed of civic activists, uncovered a number of violations, including rampant bribery. One ailing prisoner reportedly had to pay prison officials $500 before he could be transferred from the prison to a hospital.

Conditions in Georgia’s prisons are known to be unbearable. The prison in Batumi, for example, currently holds 568 prisoners although it was designed for only 410. However, change must come. Maintaining control over prisons is the most serious problem facing Georgian law enforcement. It is an open secret that for decades many of the most violent crimes in Georgia have been directed from the jail cells of various criminal bosses.

While the official explanation suggests that the recent prison riots were plotted by mafia bosses to keep control over the prison network, another theory says that the strike was provoked by the Interior Ministry in order to assert its control over the prison system and to liquidate the jailed criminal bosses. The Interior Ministry reportedly wants to reclaim the corrections department after it was re-assigned to the Justice Ministry in 2000.

Symptomatically, apart from improving the living conditions in cells, the striking prisoners demanded at least one inmate “spokesman” in each prison to defend the rights of prisoners. This demand denotes the seriousness of the problem that Saakashvili’s government seeks to tackle. Currently, law-enforcement officials have managed to isolate 200 “spokesmen” from the rest of prison population. Gocha Khurtsilava, a prison official with a 39-year career, told the media of the lavish parties some Georgian politicians celebrated with criminal bosses in prison cells and the policemen appealing to the inmate spokesman. He said that the government must share the blame for the increasing influence of criminals over the prison system.

The Special Forces crackdown resulted in casualties. On December 29 Kavtaradze reported that the Prosecutors’ Office is investigating the deaths of three prisoners during the operation. Meanwhile, relatives of prisoners and representatives of some opposition parties and NGOs rallied outside parliament on January 4. They protested the alleged torture and mistreatment of prisoners and demanded that Akhalaia and the interior minister resign. According to the protesters at least 10 prisoners were killed in the suppression of the riots and some are still unaccounted for. They also protested the new ban on lawyers’ access to prisoners and the delivery of homemade foods to prisons.

The prison strike thrust at least three issues into public view, including how to deal with the rampant criminal influence on state bodies and society; how to put officials, not inmates, in charge of the prisons; and how to crackdown on mafia groups. The strike also revealed that Georgian public opinion is highly divided about the methods that Saakashvili’s government proposed in its anti-criminal crusade. One proposal calls on the nation to report crimes to law enforcement agents, which many Georgians perceive as violating national traditions.

At a December 28 charity dinner with local and foreign business leaders, Saakashvili again pledged to root out “institution of thieves” in Georgia. He did not hide the fact that the excessive influence of criminal bosses interferes with his government’s efforts to “keep the political situation under control.” Meanwhile, Saakashvili complained that many respected people in Georgia “are silent” regarding this “threat to the entire society.” Saakashvili reminded his audience that before he became president Georgia’s criminal bosses ruled the court system, installed judges, and controlled prison personnel.

Saakashvili’s statement came after the introduction of tough new anti-crime laws adopted at the end of 2005. One reform will allow the government to launch criminal probes based on testimony by an anonymous witness. The law against organized crime and racketeering is intended to punish mafia types whether they have committed specific crimes or not. Some NGOs have dismissed the laws as anti-democratic. Meanwhile, following Saakashvili’s appeal, several prominent pro-government pundits have called upon the public to support the government’s anti-crime struggle and slammed critics of Saakashvili’s team for either betraying “traditional values and customs” or taking an excessively tough approach to the problem.

It is difficult to predict how successful the government will be in its new anti-crime project. However, everyone understands that the struggle with the deep-rooted criminal mentality and well-organized criminal networks will not be easy and represents a challenge to Georgia’s national security.

(Kviris Palitra, January 2; 24 Saati, December 29, January 9; The Messenger, December 25-26; Civil Georgia, December 29; Imedi TV, November 8-9, January 4-6; TV-Rustavi-2, December 28; TV-Mze, January 3-5)