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Georgia Prison Abuse Whistle-Blower Was 'Waiting For This Moment'

A still from one of the videos apparently showing the abuse of inmates -- Vladimer Bedukadze says he filmed the videos "for one year or more, in 2011 and 2012."
BRUSSELS -- Vladimer Bedukadze says he has been in Belgium for months -- waiting anxiously, and from a safe-enough distance, for the shock waves of his revelation to ripple across his native Georgia.

"I came to Belgium three months ago with the help of a friend who works at the Georgian Interior Ministry and my friend, Giorgi Popkhadze, who is a journalist working for Radio France," he told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview.

"I have been waiting for this moment -- for the world to turn its attention to Georgia [and] for this video to lift the mask of the criminal actions of [President Mikheil] Saakashvili and his regime."

Bedukadze, a 35-year-old former guard at Prison No. 8 in the Tbilisi suburb of Gldani, was vaulted into the spotlight this week after videos he leaked apparently showing the abuse of inmates were broadcast on Georgian television on September 18.

Vladimer Bedukadze in a screen grab from Georgia's Channel 9
Vladimer Bedukadze in a screen grab from Georgia's Channel 9
The videos show dozens of guards and officers either participating in or encouraging the abuse of prisoners. One shows an inmate weeping and begging for mercy while apparently being raped with a stick.

Bedukadze said he filmed the videos "for one year or more, in 2011 and 2012."

Shock Waves

The airing of the videos has triggered protests throughout Georgia, condemnation by civil society groups, and the resignation of Minister of Corrections, Probation, and Legal Assistance Khatuna Kalmakhelidze.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service reports that the number of demonstrators in Tbilisi swelled into the thousands on September 19 as a rally moved through the capital, stopping in front of government buildings.

Demonstrators, some of whom held photos of relatives allegedly abused in prison, called for the resignation of Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who oversaw the country's prisons from 2005 to 2008, and chief prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava.

WATCH: Georgians rally against prison abuse.
Georgian Protest Against Alleged Inmate Abuse Grows
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Saakashvili has called the incidents depicted in the video "a horrific affront to human rights and human dignity," pledging to bring those responsible to justice and to overhaul the prison system.

State prosecutors say they have detained 10 people in connection with the incidents shown in the videos and that 12 others are being investigated.

'No Opposition Link'

However, Georgian government officials have also alleged that political motives were behind the videos, which surfaced less than two weeks before Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement party faces a stern challenge in parliamentary elections on October 1.

Giorgi Kandelaki, the deputy chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed at a Brussels think tank on September 19 that billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili had purchased the videos before they were aired on opposition-linked TV.

A woman holds a picture of her son, whom she says became an invalid from injuries sustained while in prison, during a protest rally in Tbilisi on September 19.
A woman holds a picture of her son, whom she says became an invalid from injuries sustained while in prison, during a protest rally in Tbilisi on September 19.
Bedukadze called the charge "preposterous," saying he had "no relation with any opposition party in Georgia. I filmed this myself, as I said, on the orders of the prison chief, and any attempt to link me with Ivanishvili is a bluff."

He also claimed that Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia was behind the order to film the prison abuse, but did not elaborate.

Several Georgian human rights activists have speculated that the government may have wanted to show the videos to other prisoners to intimidate them.

Who Ordered Filming?

Bedukadze also denied any links to former police General Tamaz Tamazashvili, an inmate at the prison who has ties to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition.

"As far as I know, they detained three of my colleagues, prison guards, and they are torturing them to make them testify against me, to say that I have been friends with Tamazashvili and that I received a bribe from him to film these videos," Bedukadze said.

"It's a lie, it's slander. I have no relationship with General Tamazashvili, nor have I ever been a member of any opposition parties."

Government officials had earlier charged that some prison officials organized the abuse and its filming at Tamazashvili's request. Police said $17,000 and video-recording equipment were found in the office of one of the arrested prison officials.

As the fallout from the videos continues, Bedukadze said he planned to stay in Belgium.

"I have asked for political asylum in Belgium. My family is being held hostage in Georgia and I demand that the Belgian government grant them political asylum, too."

The Georgian government is "looking for me now," he added.

Written by Richard Solash based on an interview by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak and reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service
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