The Georgian leadership has announced that a bloody prison riot in Tbilisi on March 27 was part of “a large scale destabilization plot” in the country but the opposition has cast doubts over this speculation and demanded an independent parliamentary probe, which was immediately rejected by the ruling party.
Reports on the number inmates who died during the riots have varied from six to dozens. But the Justice Ministry confirmed the death of seven inmates on March 27. According to the Ministry, 22 prisoners and two policemen were hospitalized with injuries.
The Riot in the Tbilisi’s 5th prison started at 2:30 a.m. on Monday during an escape attempt, Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze said. He said that police stormed the prison after an hour of fruitless warnings to calm the situation down. Inmates are now being transferred to other detention centers as cells in the 5th prison were destroyed during a two-hour police operation which was accompanied by gunfire. Gia Kavtaradze also said that officials had information that a riot was being planned.
Meanwhile, dozens of angry relatives of prisoners who gathered outside the prison, in an attempt to receive some information about the inmates, as well as some human right groups are accusing the police of using excessive force. Reportedly, several relatives of inmates were detained after a clash with police, who were circling the prison.
President Saakashvili, who convened an emergency session of the National Security Council, said that by suppressing the prison riot Georgia prevented a threat of mass disorder and destabilization.
He recalled a jailbreak at the very same prison in Tbilisi in the early 1990s and said that it was followed by civil war and a military coup against late Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992.
Some opposition parties condemned the police operation as brutal and demanded the resignation of chief of the prison system Bacho Akhalaia and Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze. Speaking at a news conference on March 27 MP Davit Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights party, said that the officials’ version of a “planned prison riot and attempted jailbreak is very doubtful.”
“And even if we believe this version, it will further increase the responsibility of authorities and personal responsibly of Chief of the Penitentiary System Bach Akhalaia. Instead of preventing this riot they further triggered this riot and then shot dead inmates with automatic rifles,” MP Gamkrelidze said.
MP Gamkrelidze also called on the Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze to set up a special parliamentary commission to probe into the incident. But the Parliamentary Bureau – the body which develops the Parliament’s agenda – declined this proposal.
Nino Burjanadze hailed the police action and said that the police used “adequate force” to prevent a jailbreak, which could have triggered “massive destabilization” in the country.
She also said that an act of sabotage, which damaged the high-voltage power line in the Kodori gorge, the only part of breakaway Abkhazia under Tbilisi’s control, on March 27 and the prison riot in Tbilisi “were part of the same chain.”
“This was not a spontaneous [riot]. What has happened today in the prison, what has happened today in the Kodori gorge [the damaging of the power line] is part of a chain and this is a very serious attack directed towards triggering disorder and destabilization in the country,” Nino Burjanadze said.
Other parliamentarians from the ruling party also hailed the police actions and reiterated that destabilization in the country was prevented through suppression of the prison riot.
The influential human rights advocacy group Liberty Institute applauded the police as well. “Very severe measures, envisaged by the law, should be used to suppress this kind of riot,” Tea Tutberidze of the Liberty Institute said at a news conference on March 27.
But other non-governmental organizations, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), Human Rights Information and Documentation Center (HRIDC) and Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights condemned the police operation as a use of excessive force.
“If the Justice Ministry, as it claims, knew about the planned mutiny in the prison in advance, why did the Ministry fail to undertake preventive measures?.. Neither journalists or representatives of the non-governmental organization, nor lawyers of inmates are let inside the prison, which is a violation of the law,” the human rights group HRIDC said in a statement.
“Supposedly, by use of excessive force, the authorities are trying to establish an atmosphere of fear among the society,” HRIDC said.
MP Elene Tevdoradze, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, was the only parliamentarian from the ruling party who has questioned some aspects of the authorities’ reaction to the riot.
“Why did they failed to prevent it if they knew [about the planned riot] in advance? I think these officials – I do not know exactly who, but those who had information – should be held responsible,” MP Tevdoradze said.
Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze presented video footage at a news conference on March 27 shot by a hidden camera March 25. The footage shows two persons, described by the Justice Minister as criminal bosses, instructing a criminal authority to organize riots in the prison.
Later on March 27 Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze explained that although the authorities had information about the planned riot in advance “we had no information about the exact date when it was scheduled to happen.”
“We received this information on March 25 and we were preparing to undertake [preventive] measures by transferring [organizers] to other detention centers, but they started [the riot] overnight on March 26-27 - they outstripped us,” Gia Kavtaradze told Rustavi 2 television.