TBILISI Georgia's Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia handed in his resignation on Thursday as President Mikheil Saakashvili sought to soothe protests over a prison abuse scandal that erupted across a country facing an election on October 1.
Demonstrators took to the streets of the Tbilisi and other towns this week after footage showing the torture and rape of inmates in the capital's main prison was aired by two television channels supportive of the opposition.
"I feel moral and political responsibility that we could not eradicate such horrible practices," Akhalaia said in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
It was unclear whether he had been asked to resign or whether his resignation had been accepted.
Earlier on Thursday, Saakashvili named a new prisons minister, hoping to soothe the protests that threaten his United National Movement party's chances of beating off the opposition Georgian Dream coalition to win the election.
"I'm appointing the most ardent critic of this (penitentiary) system as its head," Saakashvili said, naming as prisons minister Georgy Tugushi, previously the country's human rights ombudsman.
Tugushi's predecessor resigned on Wednesday as thousands of protesters blocked Tbilisi's centre demanding the dismissal of senior ministers and an independent investigation.
Saakashvili's government says the video, which shows guards beating, punching and humiliating prisoners, as well as inmates being raped with objects, was staged and recorded by guards who were bribed by "politically motivated persons".
Surveys conducted before the scandal erupted showed Saakashvili's party some 20 points ahead of Georgian Dream, a platform set up by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili, his fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion, owns one of the broadcasters that showed the film.
On Thursday, Saakashvili also called on his opponents not to use the case in a political fight, but analysts said the ruling party would clearly suffer from the scandal.
"I think that this video has inflicted serious damage on the ruling party and the problem for them now is whether they have enough time to repair it," said Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
"This will definitely have very negative impact on the ruling party's position during elections and after that, but in general it's good for the Georgian democracy."
Television channels showed Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili visiting a jail and promising protection and reform of the penitentiary system in Georgia, a transit route for oil and gas supplies across the volatile Caucasus region.
Several thousand people gathered outside the main Tbilisi prison on Thursday after getting permits to see their relatives locked behind its bars.
"I think the opposition supporters are more on their feet now," Mathias Huter, senior analyst at Transparency International Georgia, told Reuters.
Just hours after the release of the video, Saakashvili vowed to punish those responsible and seek radical reforms of the jails system, asking Georgia's patrol policemen to take over prison guards' duties while reforms were being worked out.
The head of the Tbilisi prison, his two deputies and several prison guards were arrested, while international organizations and human rights groups called for a prompt investigation.
"I hope that all those at all levels who bear any responsibility in this appalling affair will be identified and punished according to the law," Jean Claude Mignon, president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, said in a statement.
Riccardo Migliori, president of the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), highlighted Georgia's obligation to stick to human rights standards and welcomed Saakashvili's assurances of justice for those responsible.
Saakashvili became the West's darling when he rose to power after the bloodless "rose revolution" that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003.
But opponents have accused him of curbing political freedoms and criticised for leading Georgia into a brief but disastrous war with Russia in August 2008.
(Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Sophie Hares)