Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has met with two of the leading figures in anti-government protests currently being held in Tbilisi. Kvirikashvili met separately with the parents of Davit Saralidze — one of the teenagers killed in a school brawl last December — and Malkhaz Machalikashvili, the father of a 19-year-old boy killed by security forces in Pankisi.
Vice Prime Minister and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia and a lawyer from local rights group EMC were also present at the meetings.
Initially, Zaza Saralidze, who has led large anti-government protests since 31 May and vowed to ‘end the government’, wanted to meet the prime minister together with politicians who had announced their support for his cause. But after consulting with Machalikashvili, he agreed to a narrower format.
Speaking to the media after the meeting, Machalikashvili’s spokesperson Mariam Kublashvili said the prime minister gave his ‘human’ word to ‘do everything he could and answer all questions’ regarding the investigation into the special operation that killed his son. Kublashvili said that if they do not see someone punished after a ‘reasonable’ period of 10–14 days, ‘there will be much bigger protest rallies’.
Tamta Mikeladze from local rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), told journalists that Kvirikashvili vowed to personally oversee the investigation and also to revisit the government’s policy in Pankisi, ‘to make it more humane and socially oriented’.
Upon leaving the meeting, Machalikashvili refused to say if he still intended to participate in the protests.
Speaking to the media after the meeting, Zaza Saralidze said that he stands by all his demands, giving the government until 10 June to achieve concrete results in the investigation and to arrest his son’s killer and those participating in a ‘cover-up’. If this does not happen, he said he would renew calls to ‘destroy the system’.
Saralidze said that the protest rallies would continue in the meantime. According to Radio Tavisupleba, Saralidze’s lawyers and Public Defender Nino Lomjaria were also present at the meeting.
Davit Dadunashvili, the father of the other teenager murdered in December also met with the Prime Minister. Dadunashvili has previously been critical of the protests rallies, saying he did not want a ‘revolution’ and that the government should be given the chance to investigate properly. Following the meeting, a spokesperson said that Dadunashvili will fight together with Saralidze ‘to get all the answers’.
The Saralidze–Dadunashvili commision
Thousands have gathered outside Tbilisi’s parliament building daily since Thursday, when a court partially acquitted defendants in the fatal stabbing of two teenagers outside Tbilisi School No 51. Protesters said the investigation into the murders was compromised by evidence tampering.
On Saturday night, Saralidze and Zviad Kuprava, another of the protest’s leaders, opened the stage to ‘all political parties’, after in initial days inviting only ‘ordinary people’.
Opposition parties the United National Movement (UNM), the New Georgia Party (a splinter party of the UNM), and the National Democratic Party (NPD) announced they would join a ‘new stage of the fight’ from Sunday evening. New Georgia and the NPD do not have any seats in the Georgian parliament.
The Free Democrats and Republicans refused to join, criticising Saralidze’s political allies in their statements. European Georgia said more consultations were needed before making a decision.
On Sunday, a gathering dubbed ‘justice without politicians’ was held in Vake Park, which included members of the ultra-conservative March of Georgians, conservative Christian group the Union of Orthodox Parents, and various anti-UNM groups. Participants claimed they supported Zaza Saralidze but not the politicians standing by his side. The organisers said they trusted PM Kvirikashvili, and urged the ruling party to set up an investigatory commission to probe the teen killings and called on the government to look into ‘who planned the destabilisation of the country’, referring to the last few days of protests.
Saralidze visited the counter-rally, where Ia Metreveli, the mother of Buta Robakidze who was killed by a police officer in November 2004, confronted him and demanded he distance himself from the former ruling party, the UNM.
‘I don’t need people anymore, I’m now alone in this fight… I didn’t see unity neither here, nor there [at the main rally outside parliament]’, Saralidze said as he was leaving the gathering.
Public Defender Nino Lomjaria accompanied him throughout his visit to the counter-rally where she was verbally attacked by some participants. One of the rally’s organisers, Revaz Karchkhadze, claimed that Lomjaria might have manipulated Saralidze, convincing him to leave the rally. The following day, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said they had arrested two individuals on charges of hooliganism. The ‘Justice without politicians’ rally restarted on Monday.
Relatively few people attended the main rally on Sunday in comparison to previous evenings. Saralidze was not present and organisers said they were unable to reach him. Eventually, some of the organisers visited him at home, after which Saralidze came to the demonstration and announced Monday’s meeting with the prime minister.
Response from the ruling party
European Georgia, while still deciding whether to join the rally or not, has been pushing for an investigative commission in parliament to look into the teens’ murder, as well as a possible cover up by the authorities.
On Monday, Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze confirmed the party would have a majority on the commission, with 9 of 17 members, and that it will also be chaired by Sergi Kapanadze, an MP from the party. European Georgia broke away from the UNM in January 2017 and are the largest opposition party in parliament. The UNM refused to participate in the commission.
The same day, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani invited civil society groups and experts to nominate three possible candidates for a replacement Chief Prosecutor, after Irakli Shotadze was forced to resign amidst protests into his handling of the Saralidze-Dadunashvili murders.
One of the three will later be presented by the government in parliament for approval. Several civil society groups including Transparency International Georgia expressed their misgivings about whether Tsulukiani was the right person to head the process, after favouring Shotadze’s candidacy in 2015, and continuing to praise him after his resignation.
A ‘compromised investigation’
Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili were fatally wounded on 1 December 2017 in a brawl that followed an argument in central Tbilisi’s School No 51. The conflict between ninth-year and eleventh-year students started with a verbal altercation in the school toilet and culminated with a fight involving dozens of young people outside the school’s premises on Khorava Street.
On 2 December, two teenagers were charged with ‘premeditated murder of an underage person’, and another five for failing to report the crime.
The investigation into the murders was plagued by allegations of misconduct since its launch, with Mirza Subeliani, the father of one of the participants of the brawl and a former high-ranking employee of the Prosecutor’s Office was allegedly caught on CCTV destroying evidence from the crime scene.
The Saralidze family said Subeliani would have had access to and could have influenced the investigation, and criticised the fact that he did not resign post until three days after the event.
The lawyer of one of the defendants has also claimed misconduct. Inga Sharashenidze and forensics expert Maia Nikoleishvili said that prosecutors threatened them after a report by Nikoleishvili contradicted the Prosecutor’s Office’s official version of events. Two days later, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed they were looking into the matter.
The chief prosecutor resigns
The protests have already triggered the resignation of Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze. After the court’s ruling was announced on 31 May, crowds began to gather in front of the Prosecutor’s Office demanding he resigns.
As leading human rights organisations including the Open Society Georgia Foundation, Georgian Young Lawyers Association, and Transparency International Georgia, as well as opposition parties and some members of the ruling Georgian Dream party repeated this demand, Shotadze resigned.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised later that day to reopen the investigation, a move Zaza Saralidze dismissed as an attempt by the government to ‘deceive’ him, adding that witnesses had been ‘intimidated and bought’, that evidence had been destroyed, and therefore, there could be no investigation.
Appearing to criticise the protests, the Georgian Orthodox Church put out a statement hailing the renewed investigation into the killings and urging the government to address ‘challenges to fair and effective justice’. They said the government was ‘taking steps’, and so the Church could ‘not support the development of unruly processes’ in the country.