TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili on Thursday branded the main opposition party a “criminal organization” after the leaking of a video purporting to show sexual abuse of detainees by law enforcement officers that took place when it was in power.
But the opposition accused Garibashvili of using the four-year-old video footage to distract public opinion from the former Soviet republic’s mounting economic woes and Georgia’s president said the prime minister’s comments could spark unrest.
The video, depicting the sexual abuse of two detainees in 2011, was aired on a Ukraine-based video sharing website last week and has triggered protests by pro-government groups targeting the offices of the opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), which lost power in 2012.
“Of course, society is appalled … and shocked by these videos and of course I understand their reaction and aggression,” Garibashvili told a government meeting.
The prime minister, who faces an election next year, said the UNM had forfeited the right to remain in politics.
A UNM member said he believed the sexual abuse video was leaked deliberately just hours after the publication of an opinion poll that showed support for Garibashvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party falling sharply to 14 percent.
“The government is in agony and is trying to distract public attention by other issues,” Nika Nizharadze said.
The airing of the video has reminded Georgians of a similar video depicting torture and other rights abuses in the country’s prisons in 2011 that helped bring down the UNM government of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012.
Saakashvili condemned those abuses at the time and removed several key officials but he also lost power in 2013. Eleven people were convicted, some in absentia, over the rights abuses.
On Thursday Georgian President Georgy Margvelashvili, who comes from the same coalition as Garibashvili but has frosty relations with the prime minister, called for public calm.
“Unfortunately, instead of defusing the situation, the statement made today by the head of the government has added tension to an already difficult situation,” Margvelashvili said in a televised statement.
“I call on everyone to refrain from taking any drastic steps and to rein in their emotions,” he said.
Editing by Gareth Jones