A riot in Tbilisi’s 5th prison resulted in the death of several inmates on March 27. Officials said at least two policemen from the special unit forces and at least 16 inmates were injured as a result of the clash.
Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze said at a news conference early on Monday that the police special unit prevented “a well-planned provocation” by criminal bosses involving an attempted jailbreak, which was preceded by the riot. Kavtaradze did not specify the exact number of those who died during the incident. The Justice Ministry published a list of only those 17 inmates who were injured. But later Deputy Healthcare Minister Vakhtang Megrelishvili said that one among these 17 died in the hospital.
“It was a well-planned riot and an attempted jailbreak which was launched at 2:30 am [on March 27]… This well-planned riot was organized by ‘thieves-in-law’ [criminal bosses]… I can declare that we have prevented a jailbreak, which posed a serious threat to our citizens… The special purpose unit warned rioters several times to cease [their disorder], but they refused; as a result, the special purpose unit launched a special operation which lasted for two hours. Several inmates died and two policemen were injured and ten [policemen] were slightly wounded,” Gia Kavtaradze said.
He said that the riot in 5th prison was a part of “a large-scale, well-planned provocation” as similar riots and jailbreaks were planned in other detention centers in the country.
Gunshots were heard from the prison during the police operation. Gia Kavtaradze also said that firearms were found in the prison. “The investigation will find out how these arms penetrated into the jail,” he added.
Relatives of inmates who spent all night outside the 5th prison were desperately trying to get information about the developments inside the jail, accusing the special purpose units and prison authorities of using excessive force against the rioters.
The Justice Minister also said that the prison building was “significantly damaged,” as doors of cells were destroyed. “So now we are distributing inmates to other jails,” Kavtaradze added.
He said that the law enforcers had information about a planned riot on March 25 and Gia Kavtaradze presented video footage shot by a hidden camera as evidence. The footage shows persons, described by the Justice Minister as criminal bosses, instructing a criminal authority to organize riots in the prison.
MP Elene Tevdoradze, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, criticized prison officials at a news conference on March 27 for their failure to prevent the riot.
“Why did they failed to prevent it if they knew in advance? I think these officials – I do not know exactly who, but those who had information – should be held responsible,” MP Tevdoradze said.
Public Defender Sozar Subari told RFE/RL Georgian service on March 27 that “rumors about planned prison riots have been circulating for a long time.” He said that these rumors emerged after reforms envisaging the separation of criminal bosses from other inmates was launched.
The Justice Minister also said that the riot was aimed against the reforms in the penitentiary system. “We will continue our reforms in order to impose full control over the prisons,” Gia Kavtaradze said.
Clashes between the police special units and inmates have been reported in different prisons in recent months.
A minor riot erupted in December, 2005 in the newly built prison in Kutaisi, western Georgia, which houses 1,500 inmates. Inmates were complaining about a lack of water and electricity in the new prison, which was built in order to ease overcrowding in the country’s 16 other detention facilities. In January, 2006 police clashed with inmates after the police special unit launched a search of cells in the Rustavi prison.
Relative of inmates claim that the major reasons behind these disorders are the inhuman conditions and abuses carried out by the prison officials. But officials claim that criminal gangs in jails are behind the riots. These gangs, according to the official line, are desperately trying to maintain control over the prisons, which has been undermined by the panel reform. Officials say that their drive also aims at curbing the practice of so called 'obshiak', when criminal bosses - ‘thieves-in-law’ as they are referred to - extort payments from fellow prisoners.
But some human rights groups have accused the authorities and police special units of using high-handed tactics and abusing inmates while dealing with this problem.
In December, 2005 President Saakashvili appointed new a Justice Minister and chief of prison system - Gia Kavtaradze and Bacho Akhalaia respectively - and instructed them to carry out more vigorous reforms.