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The head of a prominent Georgian non-governmental organisation and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights has been accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault by at least ten women. Allegations against Zviad Devdariani, executive director of the Civil Development Agency (CiDA), emerged after he was nominated for a spot on the Georgian Public Broadcaster’s Board of Trustees.
After Devdariani was nominated by the Public Defender on Friday, a number of women posted accusations of harassment against him in a closed Facebook group for women’s rights activists.
On Saturday, the Georgian Women’s Movement (GWM), an umbrella of women’s rights groups, issued a statement accusing Devdariani of harassing at least 10 women. Devdariani has denied the accusations.
The GWM said a number of women accused Devdariani of ‘undesired verbal and physical behaviour of a sexual nature’, and called on the Public Defender to withdraw his candidacy.
Devdariani, married with three children, has since withdrawn his candidacy. Public Defender Nino Lomjaria said later that neither she nor the Public Defender’s Office had been aware of the accusations against Devdariani when they nominated him, adding that his decision to withdraw his candidacy was ‘reasonable’.
On Monday, the Public Defender said the stories shared by women about Devdariani may amount to ‘sexual abuse’.
CiDA, the organisation Devdariani heads, is a Rustavi-based group whose website says they ‘promote the socio-economic rights of the Georgian population’.
On.ge quoted Natia (not her real name), one of the women who has accused Devdariani of harassment, as saying he started communicating with her on Facebook by liking her photos and then sending her private messages.
Natia said that at first, his messages were innocuous, but that ‘later, he started asking me what I was wearing, telling me how he liked my skin, and so on’. According to her, Devdariani ignored her when she told him she did not like the messages.
‘Then he came to my workplace by car. I entered the car and repeated to him not to do so again, and to leave me alone. Suddenly he moved his hand towards me, between my legs, and touched my underwear so roughly that my vagina hurt. I was really angry, but he didn’t even notice this, and said it was his fetish, and that this made him sexually aroused.’
According to Natia, she cut off all communication with him after this, but he kept messaging her that he ‘missed and wanted her’, which she said she ignored. This went on for roughly five months before he blocked her on Facebook, Natia said.
Tabula quoted another woman who said that in 2015, when she was 21, she contacted Devdariani for details about a vacancy at CiDA. According to her, Devdariani invited her for an interview where he demanded sex in exchange for a job.
‘It was evening already when I got there, he opened the door and closed it again. There was no one else in the office. He offered me tea and asked basic questions. I responded to them honestly, I did not suspect anything. When we were walking on the stairs, he touched me. Then we entered his office and he locked that door as well. I remember there were leather seats there. He started describing what would happen if he hired me — that he would drive me from and back home every morning, I would have to make coffee and I would be paid for it’.
She said Devdariani talked ‘a lot about what women and relationships mean for him. He said that he liked me so much that he would leave his wife. It was shocking’. According to her, after she did not ‘play along’, Devdariani started touching her and asked for a kiss.
According to her, Devdariani told her to fulfil one wish: ‘he said that he was crazy about women’s feet and if I wanted to leave, I had to take off my shoes and show him my legs. I wanted to leave so much that I took my shoes off’.
‘He started kissing my feet, I felt terrible’, she said, and added that she asked him to take her home. ‘He took me home and talked about his book on the way. He said he would give it to me as a gift, as a token of respect’, she claimed, and added that she was terrified because Devdariani knew where she lived.
‘For a certain period of time, I blamed myself for recklessly texting him. But I realised that I did not even think about this, I was looking for a job. He may say that I provoked him, but in reality, he said that he would only hire me if I fulfilled certain requirements, and sexual intercourse was among these requirements’, she said.
All of the women who have so far come forward have asked to remain anonymous.
Response to accusations
Devdariani has denied the accusations. Out of all the stories so far to emerge, he has responded to only the latter, saying it was ‘a lie’.
In a letter to Liberali, Devdariani claimed CiDA always hires staff through open contests and group interviews, and ‘the notion of an individual interview does not exist’.
‘We got to know each other through social media, on her initiative’, Devdariani claimed, adding that the conversations between them were ‘informal’. He confirmed that he invited her to his office, but said that there were no open calls for any position in the organisation, adding that they ‘both knew this’.
Devdariani maintains that after they parted in the car, he got in touch with her again once, but since she responded that she only wanted a ‘formal, job-related relationship’, it was a ‘clear signal’ for him, and he never contacted her again.
Devdariani said it was ‘shameful’ that ‘political groups are using this case for political purposes’, and are ‘destroying’ him ‘as a civic activist’.
‘Some may not like me or my freedom personally, but I have never misused my position and influence’, he told IPress.
Response from CiDA
In response to the allegations, CiDA issued a statement on Saturday linking the accusations to the contest for GPB’s Board of Trustees.
They said that the statement from the GWM, ‘intending to damage the professional reputation of Zviad Devdariani suspiciously coincided with his nomination by the Public Defender for the Board of Trustees of the GPB, which is aimed at complicating the selection process of an independent, objective, impartial and experienced candidate, who has the support of civil society, international organisations and the Public Defender’.
Baia Pataraia, a friend of Devdariani who was endorsed by the GWM for the position on GPB’s board, also withdrew her candidacy, saying she had ‘a conflict of interest’. Pataraia heads women’s rights group Safari.
She later wrote that she withdrew her candidacy to prove there was no connection between the accusations against Devdariani and GWM’s endorsement of her.
She added that ‘a number of abusive men hold office’, and hoped that ‘women expose all of them’. Until then, she added, Safari, with other rights groups, is preparing a lawsuit against Devdariani.
CiDA said they have a ‘completely transparent policy for hiring staff members’, and the process is ‘led by CiDA’s administrative team along with managers of corresponding directions’. Thus, they claimed, ‘it’s absolutely impossible for any staff member, including the Executive Director, to misuse his/her position with the motive of sexual harassment during the hiring process’.
They added that there has ‘never been any case of harassment raised by the staff members within the organization’.
Calls for an investigation
Sexual harassment is not legally punishable in Georgia. According to the Public Defender, the case shows ‘the necessity for an effective mechanism for regulating sexual harassment, which would allow parties to protect their rights’.
[Read on OC Media: No laws, just shame: Sexual harassment in the South Caucasus]
Eight civil society organisations have called on parliament to recognise sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.
In a 19 March statement, the groups, including the Open Society Georgia Foundation, Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), and Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, called on the Public Defender to examine all the cases of alleged sexual harassment ‘confidentially’.
The Public Defender has said she would investigate the allegations, and that ‘the fundamental rights, dignity, honour and privacy of all parties will be fully observed’.
Ida Bakhturidze, a member of the Georgian Women’s Movement, told OC Media that a number of the women who have accused Devdariani of sexual harassment and sexual abuse are now deciding whether to take the case to court.