'Safest' city's crime fears as inmates freed from jail

Prisoners being released in Georgia

At least 4,342 prison inmates have been released in Georgia under an amnesty for some 5,000. But although the government says they were wrongly imprisoned - or mistreated in jail - there are fears about what impact their freedom could have on one of Europe's safest cities.

As the first prisoners walk free out of Gldani prison in Tbilisi - many for the first time in years - they are hugged and kissed by crying mothers and wives.

It is an emotional scene because friends and relatives know that their loved ones are not only free - but also safe.

It was here in this men's prison that inmates were filmed apparently being physically and sexually abused - a scandal which helped to oust the then government in last October's elections.

Many of the inmates say that before the change of government they were regularly beaten by guards and subjected to horrific abuse - reports of rape are common.

Those being released tell me they were jailed for their political convictions - simply because they opposed the government at the time, for example by taking part in an anti-government protest in May 2011.

But I might have actually met some of these men before - at that protest.

The demonstration turned violent and four people died.

The fault lay partly with some of the police officers, who reacted heavy-handedly, using rubber bullets to disperse the crowd - and in the confusion beating peaceful protestors and journalists with batons. I know, because I was hit myself.

Before the police moved in I talked to some of the demonstrators - including men who were ripping up rocks from the pavement, ready to throw into the crowds, and who hid sharpened metal sticks and clubs under their jackets.

These were not peaceful protesters - but thugs looking for a fight.

Looking at the happy scene of families being reunited outside the prison, it is impossible to know whether any of these men are the ones I saw acting violently on that day.

Image caption The first 200 of the 3,500 inmates due to be released were freed from Gldani prison in Tbilisi last week

But President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the former government, says criminals are being released back into society.

Many other Georgians are equally worried. Especially those who remember how violent Georgia used to be, before President Saakashvili took over almost a decade ago.

The country was in effect run by organised crime bosses, known as thieves-in-law - a highly codified criminal gang structure, which dates back to resistance against the communist state in Stalin's 1930s gulags.

Throughout the 1990s crime was a part of daily life in Georgia. Break-ins and street robberies were common, people would wind down their car windows when they parked, so that thieves could just look in, without having to smash the windows first.

Neighbourhoods would rely on the local mafia boss to keep order, rather than deal with corrupt police officers, who were rarely paid, and so lived off bribes.

That all changed when Saakashvili, and his team of Western-educated reformers, swept to power in the US-backed 2003 Rose Revolution.

He came down hard on crime: young police officers were recruited and paid well - and the thieves-in-law and their criminal gangs were either jailed, or fled the country.

And today, although you can still see bars on the windows of many houses as a remnant of the old crime-ridden days, Georgia is safer than any of the Western European cities I know.

One banal example: the other day, our producer got back to her car - she had not only left the car unlocked, with her laptop sitting inside, she had forgotten to even close the door at all, which was left ajar.

After a full day's filming, the laptop was still sitting there in full view. I just cannot imagine that in most Western cities.

So, many people are now worried about what will happen without the previous government's tough approach to crime.

Will the criminal gangs come back to Georgia, if they think the new government is soft on crime? And are some of the mafia bosses among those who are now being released?

Over the last decade, the country has swung from anarchy and chaos, to what many said was becoming a dictatorial police state.

Image caption Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili cracked down on crime after his election in 2003

Now there is a chance for something in-between: a system that is neither authoritarian nor anarchic. Most Georgians have had enough of both extremes.

But this still remains a country in love with drama - where a leader can be praised as the country's saviour one minute and then condemned as a war criminal the next.

And the current prevailing mood, as thousands walk free from jail, is that anyone who was imprisoned by the previous government is a political prisoner.

Given Georgia's crime-ridden history that is clearly not the case.

Until now the country's prisons had contained both innocent victims, who had suffered abuse, and the corrupt criminals who once made Georgia so dangerous.

The challenge for the new government is knowing who's who.

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