Georgian police outside the Tbilisi prison on March 27 (Interpressnews)
CALLS FOR AN INVESTIGATION: The head of the Justice Ministry's department for administering prisons, BACHO AKHALAYA, is at the center of the disputed March 27 prison incident.
Top Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, were swift to commend the police action as having prevented the destabilization that, according to Saakashvili, would inevitably have followed the escape of thousands of prisoners.
But Levan Samushia, a lawyer for one of the prisoners injured during the fracas, told journalists on March 28 that the official claims of a riot by armed prisoners were untrue, Caucasus Press reported. And the 45 NGOs grouped under the umbrella organization Civil Society for a Democratic Georgia issued a statement questioning the official version of what happened and calling for an "independent and fair" investigation.
On March 27, Anna Dolidze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association raised a series of questions at a Tbilisi press conference, including why police used live ammunition instead of rubber bullets and tear gas to put down the supposed insurrection. Elena Tevdoradze, chairwoman of the parliament human rights committee, who was at the prison during when the riot supposedly took place, said one of the prisoners killed, an Ossetian, was shot in the back after the riot was quashed, Caucasus Press reported on March 29.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question concerns the role of Akhalaya, who, like Tevdoradze, was in the prison at the time of the disturbance. "Alia "on March 28 quoted prisoners as saying that Akhalaya, accompanied by special police and allegedly either drunk or high on drugs, forced his way into the prison hospital and began insulting and beating prisoners. Lawyer Kakha Kvistiani said on March 27 that Akhalaya assaulted and seriously injured his client, Giorgi Avaliani, who has been refused medical treatment for those injuries.
Tevdoradze told the parliament bureau on March 27 that she was summoned to the prison by a telephone call from an inmate who claimed prisoners were being beaten in the prison hospital, but did not mention Akhalaya. She quoted that prisoner as saying "We are afraid they will start shooting, please defend us." She said when she arrived, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was there and "very agitated." Tevdoradze confirmed that Akhalaya was there, but she said he was not drunk.
Akhalaya is said to have provoked protests at a penal colony in Rustavi two months ago by similarly turning up in the small hours of the morning and ill-treating inmates, insisting they strip naked and run around outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. When they protested, Akhalaya called in special forces troops, who fired rubber bullets to restore order, ombudsman Subar later told journalists.On March 20, the newspaper "Khronika" quoted lawyer Lali Aptsiauri as saying Akhalaya personally participated in the beating of several prisoners, one of them her client, at prison No.7. And on March 24, NGOs demonstrated outside the Justice Ministry -- not for the first time -- to demand Akhalaya's resignation.
Piecing together the official version of events, Tevdoradze's comments, and those by lawyers for surviving prisoners, it seems possible, even plausible, that Akhalaya may have incited a protest by at least some prisoners. Nonetheless, on March 28 the Georgian parliament rejected opposition calls to investigate the incident. (Liz Fuller)