TBILISI : At least 17 prison inmates in Georgia were hospitalised on Monday with self-inflicted stab wounds as a larger protest over alleged mistreatment rocked the ex-Soviet state’s penal system, authorities said.

The inmates from Geguti penitentiary in western Georgia were treated for “self-inflicted multiple stab wounds in their upper and lower extremities,” the Ministry of Correction said, as hundreds more convicts pressed on with a hunger strike.

“The injured inmates received medical treatment and were brought back to the prison in a normal condition. No force was used against them by the prison administration which is fully in control of the situation,” a statement from the ministry said.  Some 800 inmates at the prison have been on hunger strike since Friday protesting against alleged abuse by prison guards.

Prisoners’ relatives were holding a round-the-clock vigil outside Geguti prison, claiming the authorities were hiding the true scale of the incident, Georgian Imedi TV station reported.

The Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance, Sozar Subari, has denied the allegations of mistreatment, claiming mafia dons were behind the hunger strike.

“Criminal bosses who lost their privileged position in prisons and are now forced to obey the rules staged the protest,” Subari said in televised remarks.

Conditions in Georgia’s prison have proved a combustible issue and human rights activists have long criticised the Caucasus nation’s penitentiary system over allegations of prisoner abuse.

Major protests ahead of parliamentary polls in 2012 over leaked videos of inmates apparently being sexually abused contributed to a shock defeat for the party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia’s current government has vowed to tackle the issue and initiated a major amnesty to lower incarceration rates that spiked to one of the highest in the world as Saakashvili led a campaign to eradicate powerful mafia clans.