TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Thousands rallied Friday in Georgia to demand the prosecution of top officials fired in a prison abuse scandal that threatens to unseat the governing pro-Western party in the country's Oct. 1 parliamentary election.
The protests, sparked by graphic videos showing guards in the former Soviet republic brutally beating prisoners and raping them with truncheons and broom handles, have ratcheted up the pressure on President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party is facing a tough opposition challenge.
Saakashvili has sought to contain the damage by firing his interior minister and the minister in charge of the penitentiary system while also reshuffling prison personnel.
But despite these efforts, protesters increased their demands as rallies went into a third day Friday, insisting that former Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaya and his brother, who was a deputy defense minister, be brought to justice.
An opposition victory in the Oct. 1 vote would make its multibillionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's prime minister. Ivanishvili would then become Georgia's No. 1 leader next year, after Saakashvili's second and final term ends, thanks to a political reform that will shift powers from the presidency to the parliament and the prime minister.
Ivanishvili and his allies have cautioned their supporters against taking to the streets, apparently fearing a government crackdown that may derail the vote and steal what they hope will be their victory.
While not denying that the prison abuse took place, Saakashvili's government has accused the opposition of staging the videos and waiting to broadcast them until the final weeks of the election campaign. One of the two channels that aired the videos belongs to Ivanishvili.
Both sides have expressed a desire for the election to take place peacefully.
"Elections must be held in a quiet environment," Manana Kobakhidze, a leading member of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, said on the independent Maestro television late Thursday. "Let people express their opinion at the polls."
Students, who have been the main driving force in the protests, heeded the call Friday, vowing to suspend their involvement in street protests until after the vote. But many other Georgians outraged by the prison abuse continued to protest.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered overnight outside the Gldani prison in Tbilisi where the videos of abuse were filmed, stopping several prison vans and asking prisoners inside whether they had suffered abuse.
One prisoner, who identified himself as Shota Nikolaishvili, shouted back, saying that he had been repeatedly beaten by guards. "I have lost my health here and I fear nothing now," he cried.
The new penitentiaries minister, Giorgy Tugushi, visited the prison on Friday and promised change.
"Everything will be improved gradually," he said. "Of course I do not exclude that some incident might happen here, there may be some unworthy people still left in the system, but in the nearest future everything will be improved."
Demonstrators also gathered outside another prison in the city of Rustavi. One protester, Mary Kiknadze, said her son in there had been repeatedly beaten.
"They punished him for letting me know about their abuse of prisoners," she said. "This government is torturing people to make them confess to crimes they haven't committed."
The European Union has strongly condemned the abuse of prisoners and urged the Georgian authorities to punish the culprits.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she is "appalled by the shocking footage of abuses committed against inmates in Gldani prison."
"It is of vital importance that these and other incidents are thoroughly and transparently investigated and that those responsible are held to account," she said in a statement.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, urged Georgia to "promptly, impartially and effectively" investigate all cases of abuse and take steps "to ensure that prisons and detention centers are managed in line with international human rights law and standards."
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