Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Heads Roll in Georgia's Justice Ministry

Three escaped prisoners are apprehended after a sensational jailbreak which has sparked a purge of Georgia's law enforcement agencies
By Irakly Kharabadze

The credibility of Georgia's justice ministry is in tatters after 12 notorious prisoners broke out of a Tbilisi prison hospital by crawling through a 30-metre tunnel.


Among the fugitives were Guran Absandze, finance minister during Zviad Gamsakhurdia's regime, Feniz Gulua and Zaur Edzhibia, who have been standing trial for the attempted assassination of President Eduard Shevardnadze in February 1998.


They were accompanied by Loti Kobalia, former commander of the National Guard, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for organising an armed uprising against Shevardnadze's government in 1993.


Absandze, Kobalia and Edzhibia were apprehended in the Ambrolaur region, 10 days after the prison break. According to Kakha Bakuradze, deputy interior minister, the men were betrayed by a peasant farmer who told police they had demanded bread and cheese "with unnecessary rudeness".


Recriminations resounded across the republic as soon as the jailbreak was discovered - not least because the Georgian security services have yet to establish how the 12 men managed to tunnel their way out of the hospital ward without alerting the prison authorities.


President Shevardnadze said that the escape could not have been possible without outside help -- namely "staff at the medical facility and those forces which are committed to the destabilisation of this country".


His claims were echoed by interior minister Kakha Targamadze and the parliamentary chairman, Zurab Zhvania, who said, "The breakout was intended to trigger a process of destabilisation across the nation".


Over the next few days, nine hospital staff, including the director, Naulis Kobulia, his deputy, Tengiz Kirtadze, and head doctor Revaz Zhgenti were remanded in custody by the Mtatsminda-Krsanissky regional court. If convicted of aiding and abetting the escapees, the suspects face up to four years in jail.


But the reverberations have gone far beyond the walls of the Republic Prison itself. Givi Kvarelashvili, head of the Georgian prisons department, was subsequently dismissed from his post while Dzhoni Kheturiani, the justice minister, offered to resign. Kheturiani's resignation was accepted by the president who admitted that it had been a "mistake" to put responsibility for the prison system in the hands of the justice ministry.


Kheturiani has since been replaced by Mikhail Saakashvili, the main reformer for Georgia's ruling party.


Georgia's law enforcement system as a whole has come in for a barrage of criticism. Revaz Adamia, chairman of the parliamentary committee on defence and national security, said the breakout pointed towards widespread incompetence in the Georgian security forces. Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, leader of the opposition party, the National Democratic Alliance, described the nation's law enforcement bodies as "hopeless".


Opposition leaders were quick to lay the blame firmly at the door of Eduard Shevardnadze's regime. And Walter Shurgaya, a member of the council for political prisoners, warned that the Tbilisi government would use the incident to clamp down on other supporters of the ousted Zviad Gamsakhurdia (known as Zviadists).


Shevardnadze himself pledged on national radio that none of the 12 fugitives would be allowed to escape punishment for their crimes. Detachments of the interior ministry, the army and the special forces joined in a nationwide manhunt, headed by the general prosecutor, Dzhamlet Babilashvili.


Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Dzhoni Pirtskhalaishvili, head of Georgia's general staff, announced that border checkpoints and military installations had been put on red alert. The interior minister, Kakha Targamadze, said he believed the Zviadists might try to escape to Chechnya, Ingushetia or Abkhazia.


Since the apprehension of Absandze, Kobalia and Edzhibia in the Ambrolaur region, just north of Kutaisi, the hunt has focused on the surrounding forest areas. The other nine fugitives, however, remain at large.


On the day after his arrest, Absandze was back in the High Court, giving evidence in his trial. The disgraced finance minister - who faces an additional eight-year sentence for the escape attempt - refused to reveal the circumstances of the breakout. However, he told the court, "I had no hope of ever being set free. Leaving the prison became an extreme means of expressing protest. I wanted to bring an end to the endless persecution that I have been subjected to. I have tried other means, such as hunger-strike, but to no avail."


Irakly Kharabadze is an independent journalist based in Tbilisi


More IWPR's Global Voices