Prison rape furore set to sway voters in Georgia

Elections could see billionaire emerge as serious rival to US ally Mikhail Saakashvili

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2012, 3:22am


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Public outcry over the rape and beating of prisoners in a Georgian prison is threatening the nine-year rule of US ally President Mikhail Saakashvili in parliamentary elections on Monday.

While Saakashvili's ruling party held a lead of more than 20 percentage points in a poll conducted last month, the release on September 18 of graphic footage showing prison guards beating and raping male inmates with a broom handle and truncheon brought thousands to the streets of many cities in Georgia.

The opposition movement of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who's accused by the Georgian government of ties with Russia, where he made his fortune, is vowing to end Saakashvili's rule in the former Soviet state.

"This prison scandal is a serious blow to President Saakashvili's government," said Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat.

Up for grabs in the election is the prime minister's post, which will become more powerful than the presidency once Saakashvili ends his term next year because of legislative changes two years ago. Ivanishvili has said that his past business experience and management skills would make him a good premier.

Saakashvili, a 44-year-old US-educated lawyer who disbanded the traffic police after taking office, has won plaudits for reducing corruption and eliminating red tape in the country of 4.5 million people.

Economic growth accelerated to 8.2 per cent from a year earlier in the second quarter, up from 6.8 per cent in the previous three months.

While Saakashvili is credited with enacting policies to create the economic turnaround, Ivanishvili, 56, and other critics say he has curtailed free speech by squashing political competition.

"Georgia is not a democracy," Ivanishvili said this week in an e-mail.

"The people of Georgia will have the opportunity on October 1 to stand against authoritarian rule and stand up for democracy and the rule of law."

Ivanishvili, who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship and holds a French passport, is worth US$6.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine, equivalent to almost half of Georgia's US$14.4 billion economy.