Inside the Prison That Beat a President: How Georgia’s Saakashvili Lost His Election

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat as his ruling party suffered in parliamentary polls, thanks in part to videos showing torture in a prison a TIME correspondent once visited

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Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters

An inmate leaves a polling station at Prison No. 8 in Gldani, Georgia, during parliamentary elections on Oct. 1, 2012

The drive to Prison No. 8 took about an hour from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and we spent most of that time talking about colleges in California and traffic jams in Moscow, but not about Georgian prisons, which were hardly at the center of the national debate. This was in the summer of 2010, well before Georgian television showed videos of men being tortured at Prison No. 8, and well before those videos changed the course of this week’s national elections.

When only a quarter of the votes had been counted on Tuesday, it became clear just how much damage the prison scandal has done to President Mikheil Saakashvili: he was forced to concede his party’s defeat to an opposition party, which was formed only six months before the elections. It was a remarkable upset, and it will likely allow the newfangled Georgian Dream party to form a new government and choose a Prime Minister, an outcome that would have been hard to imagine two years ago, when Saakashvili had no real political challengers and few Georgians had ever heard of Prison No. 8. My chaperone that day in 2010, the spokeswoman for the Georgian penitentiary system, could not even understand why an American journalist would want to spend the day behind those prison walls in the town of Gldani. And neither exactly could I.

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It had been Saakashvili’s idea for me to go there. A few months earlier, in March 2010, a group of suspected Georgian mafiosi had been arrested in a dragnet across Western Europe, mostly in Spain, where they controlled prostitution and drug rackets in the resort town of Majorca and other places. I had gone to Tbilisi to work on a story about where these guys came from and how they ended up running the underworld on the Mediterranean coast. As it happened, this was one of Saakashvili’s favorite subjects of conversation. A point of pride for him was his government’s war against the mafia, which had controlled much of the economy before the Rose Revolution brought Saakashvili to power in 2003. He seemed to remember his childhood as a scene from the movie Goodfellas. “All the schoolkids wanted to resemble the so-called thieves-in-law,” he told me, using the slang for the “made men” of the local mob. “Everybody knew their names. They had allegiance around them.”

Torture, he said, had been common practice for Georgian law enforcement before the Rose Revolution. Even though Georgia suffered from endless electricity shortages back then, “every police station had their own generator to connect [to] people,” he said. “The only way for police to unearth some crimes was to torture, because people would not cooperate, everybody was scared to cooperate because they were scared of organized crime.” He added as an afterthought: “Of course, no one tortures here anymore.”

In the world according to Saakashvili, torture, corruption and organized crime were supposed to have been eradicated after the Rose Revolution, which ended the rule of Soviet holdovers like President Eduard Shevardnadze and put Georgia on a path to joining the E.U. The young, U.S.-educated President, who was only 36 when he took office, did get far in his reforms. In one of his boldest strokes, he fired nearly the entire police force, which was notoriously corrupt. But his popularity waned in 2008, when a war with Russia cost Georgia a fifth of its territory, and his final term in office will expire next October. He had a chance of returning as Prime Minister after that — but he would have needed his party to hold on to its majority in parliament, which on Monday it failed to do. Now Saakashvili becomes a lame duck, watching the opposition consolidate control as his final year in office ticks away. For Georgia, it is a landmark, the first time in its history that power has changed hands as the result of an election.

Two years ago, long before Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, formed the Georgian Dream party in April, no opposition force posed much of a challenge to Saakashvili. He had a lot to be proud of, especially his reforms of the police and the prison system, which ranked among the best in the former Soviet Union. After we finished our interview in the presidential palace, which lies on a hill overlooking the city, his aides called the press service of the penitentiary system and organized a trip for me the next day to what I assumed would be a showcase facility, the pride of Georgian law enforcement. The town of Gldani turned out to be a sleepy suburb of Tbilisi full of tall, freshly painted apartment blocks built around playgrounds alive with children. Prison No. 8 was on the edge of town, a modern complex of squat buildings behind a high concrete wall.

The head of the prison administration, Tamaz Meladze, was waiting for us inside when we got there. He was a stout, gruff man with a dark pinstripe suit that was a little too big for him, and he spoke Russian with a thick accent, often forgetting words. He had worked in the prison system since 1986, including at the infamous Prison No. 5, which was closed after a riot in 2006. Before the current prison scandal, which erupted after Georgian television channels first showed the torture videos on Sept. 18, that riot in 2006 was the worst stain on Georgia’s penitentiary system. Police killed nine prisoners that day and wounded at least 19 others, an incident that Saakashvili had also been glad to discuss. “Of course that made the government unpopular,” the President told me. “But in the long run it was very helpful, because it happened and they understood that we weren’t kidding with them, that we really meant business.”

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That same cavalier tone was evident in Meladze, who took pride in his role as a watchman in the government’s “no tolerance” policy on crime, which brought the conviction rate in Georgian courts to 98% after the Rose Revolution. “I’m not a politician,” he told me in his monastically spare office inside Prison No. 8, “but I know one thing: you have to fight these guys.” He was referring to suspected mafiosi like Lasha Shushanashvili, who had escaped the Spanish police raids just three months before. Georgia had succeeded, Meladze said, where the European war against the mafia was failing. “It was a bloody job, but we did it,” he said.

He then took me on a tour of the grounds, taking pains to show me the meticulous order he kept on his patch of the prison system. In the kitchen, he opened the glass door of a refrigerator where samples of food from every prison meal were kept in neatly labeled jars. If someone got food poisoning, he explained, the kitchen staff would be able to pinpoint which course of which meal had been contaminated. The consignment shop in an adjacent room offered more proof of how well the prisoners were treated. It was stacked high with Davidoff cigarettes, fresh newspapers and candy bars. Meladze showed me the shower rooms, which had individual concrete booths for each prisoner, and then we went to the isolation cells. Despite the obvious effort to sanitize the cells before my visit, their rank smell crept through the reek of chlorine and ammonia. The cells had thick metal doors and consisted of a toilet, a washbasin and a fold-down metal cot that was chained to the wall. The floor was concrete with a drain in the center.

Because the regular cells were occupied by groups of prisoners, he declined to show them to me. That is where the undated torture videos were taken. They showed groups of guards beating and humiliating emaciated prisoners in their cells. In the most sickening clip, guards rape a prisoner with an old-fashioned broom known in Russian as a venik. In the two weeks before the elections, the videos sparked street protests across the country and sent Saakashvili’s approval rating into free fall. Watching them two years after my day at the prison, it has been hard to avoid a sense of guilt that I did not see any signs of the abuse. In retrospect, the signs were there. When we passed inmates in the yard or in the prison corridors, they would meekly hunch their shoulders and bow their heads at Meladze, never allowing themselves to make eye contact with him or me.

They froze in abject fear when I tried to speak with them, muttering monosyllabic answers to my questions. How are you treated? Fine. Do you have any complaints? No. “I’m sorry they are not more sociable,” Meladze said as we made our way back up the stairs to his office. He was more relaxed during that second part of our interview, explaining that “fear is important” in a prison system, especially when you’re dealing with killers and mafiosi. “You have to nab these guys,” he said excitedly. “And even after you arrest them, you’ve got to stick them in the isolation cell straight away so they can’t go giving orders to the outside. That’s the main thing.”

Saakashvili seemed to feel the same way. He was uncommonly proud of having vanquished organized crime, which is indeed a noble accomplishment of his administration. “Our prison population tripled,” he said. “But our crime rate has gone down three times.” That trend has continued in the two years since my interview with him. There are now close to 25,000 prisoners in Georgia, more per capita than in any other country in Europe and four times more than when Saakashvili first became President in 2004. But it will no longer be a source of pride for the President, and certainly not for his people. When Georgians went to the polls on Monday, those images of torture were playing in many of their minds. And I know how hard they would have been to forget after visiting that prison in Gldani.

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