Relatives and supporters of Bacho Akhalaia, who is in pretrial detention, started ringing alarm bells on November 14 after they found out that former defense and interior minister was transferred to a prison facility where several formerly influential criminal bosses are also held.
Relatives and supporters of Akhalaia, among them a group of lawmakers from President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party, including Akhalaia’s father MP Roland Akhalaia, say that placing ex-minister in the same prison facility which also houses so called ‘thieves-in-law’, or criminal authorities,who despise him for a crackdown on them – often as critics were saying using heavy handed approach, while serving as prison system chief in 2005-2008, amounted to exerting "psychological pressure" on ex-minister.
After court sent him to pretrial detention pending investigation, Akhalaia, who faces charges related to torture and exceeding official authorities, was initially placed in Gldani prison No.8 in Tbilisi – the facility, which was in the center of prison abuse scandal in September, 2012, when shocking videos of inmates’ torture emerged. Akhalaia, who at the time was interior minister, had to resign amid protests against the prison abuse.
It emerged on November 14 that Akhalaia was transferred to prison No.7 also in Tbilisi. Both of these prisons are categorized as "closed" penitentiary facilities, where security is higher than in "partly open" facilities.
The prison No.7 houses only 35 inmates, according to the ministry for penitentiary system, which says that purpose of Akhalaia’s transfer to that facility was to provide better security to the high-profile detainee.
Akhalaia is placed alone in a four-person cell and other cells next to his are empty.
Akhalaia’s defense lawyer, Davit Dekanoidze, said that his client thinks he was placed in prison No.7 in an attempt to "pressure him psychologically."
Several representatives from public monitoring team – a group of 51 persons from civil society and media organizations who have been entitled to visit prison facilities at any time after the September prison abuse scandal, visited Akhalaia twice on November 14. They said that although Akhalaia did not complain about any mistreatment against him, he had sense of insecurity knowing that ‘thieves-in-law’ were in the same facility and it would be appropriate if the prison system ministry transfers Akhalaia from prison No.7.
According those people who have visited Akhalaia on November 14, ex-minister himself prefers to be placed in a prison in Tbilisi, which is known as "Matrosov prison" and which is mainly designed specially for convicted former employees of law enforcement agencies.
Prison system minister, Sozar Subari, said that concerns about Akhalaia’s transfer to prison No.7 were "groundless". He claims that Akhalaia has "much better conditions" in this facility.
"Unlike prison No.7 there are thousands of inmates in prison No.8 [where Akhalaia was initially placed] with some of them facing charges into or already convicted for very grave crimes and who remember many bad things from the previous authorities, which Akhalaia represents, including torture in prison," Subari said and added that in a facility with only 35 inmates it was much easier to avoid disturbances and to provide much better security for Akhalaia.
He also said that the prison authorities were initially considering Akhalaia’s transfer to so called "Matrosov prison", which is designed for convicted former law enforcement agencies’ employees, but decided not to transfer ex-minister there, at least for now, after receiving "certain information", which he did not specify.
Subari, who met with a group of UNM lawmakers on November 14, said that possible transfer of Akhalaia to that prison was still on the table and that decision would be made when the prison authorities deem it appropriate. UNM lawmakers demand to have “unlimited access” to Akhalaia.
Representatives from the Public Defender’s Office, who also visited Akhalaia in the prison No.7, said that ex-minister had no complaints against the prison administration, but he believed it was unjustified to place him in the prison facility, where ‘thieves-in-law’ were also held. The Public Defender’s Office has called on the ministry in charge of the penitentiary system to consider his transfer from the prison No.7.