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Georgian convicts swap cells for monastery

Well-behaved prisoners in Georgia are being offered the chance to spend time in a monastery to serve out their sentences, as part of a plan to reduce prison overcrowding, Tom Esslemont reports from Tbilisi.

The government-backed scheme is stoking controversy in Georgia

It is not hard to spot Tariel Maizeradze in the crowded chapel.

He wears a flowing red robe, while the others, the monks, sport black cassocks and neat hats.

The main difference, though, is that Tariel is not a fully-fledged monk, but a prisoner now serving out his sentence at the Father Ambrosi Khelaia monastery near Tbilisi.

Having spent four years behind bars and barbed wire, he is now allowed to roam the calm surroundings of a pine forest on the outskirts of the city, as one of the first candidates in a government-led rehabilitation programme.

A devout Orthodox Christian, he shows me around the monastery, explaining his daily ritual.

Father Saba, head of the Father Ambrosi Khelaia Monastery
With the support of God we are able to welcome criminals who are eager to become better people
Father Saba, head of Father Ambrosi Khelaia monastery

"I start every day in prayer. Then I feed the chickens and sheep. During the afternoon I usually sit together with the other monks and we discuss our faith. At 2130 we rest."

He says he also takes part in Bible study, bee-keeping, gardening and playing with the monks' pet bear.

He has swapped his prison cell for the relative comfort of the monastery and is allowed to receive frequent visitors.

His former fellow prisoners, he says, became jealous when they heard he was being moved.

"They wanted to come and spend time with the monks as well. This is a better place for me. I suppose God had something to do with my coming here."

Tariel, 50, was sentenced in 2006 to seven years for minor offences he had committed while working as a policeman.

The head of the monastery, Father Saba, insists he is ready to accept anyone prepared to ask for forgiveness - even murderers.

"With the support of God we are able to welcome criminals who are eager to become better people and confess their sins," he said.

'Religious discrimination'

Although the scheme is being organised by the Georgian government, the initiative came from the Georgian Orthodox Church - the country's most prominent and powerful religious institution, one directly funded by the government.

However, critics of the scheme say it is too exclusive of other religions and lacks a clear organisational structure.

Convict/monk Tariel Maizeradze
I am at peace here

Convict Tariel Maizeradze

Levan Ramishvili, chairman of the Liberty Institute think tank, says "it is [currently] done in a discriminatory manner because the state only co-operates with the Orthodox Church.

"In our prisons we have people from various faiths and they would probably prefer to serve out their sentence somewhere else and not in [an] Orthodox monastery."

The authorities say they are not ruling out working with other religious communities.

However the priority, they say, is to find ways to rehabilitate some of Georgia's 22,000 prisoners, many of whom are minor offenders like Tariel Maizeradze.

In recent years, human rights activists have said Georgia's prisoners are kept in unsanitary conditions.

In its 2008 report, the US state department said the country's prisons and pre-trial detention centres failed to match international standards.

Poor standards

Tato Kelbakiani, assistant head of Georgia's penitentiary department, told the BBC that he was aware of the scale of the problem and that jails needed reform.

He said it was the government's intention to "release people into monasteries, but also into other schemes as well".

He also suggested that violent criminals may one day be introduced into monasteries.

"People on life sentences might also become eligible for the scheme after they have served a minimum of 20 years," he said.

For his part, Tariel Maizeradze is enjoying his comparative freedom. He even says he would consider spending more than his allotted three years at the monastery.

"I am at peace here. I don't think I'll ever become a fully-fledged monk, but I know I never want to be a policeman again either - that's for sure."



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