Three men have sewn their lips shut and are on hunger strike in the central Georgian mining town of Chiatura in protest at what they say is ‘police harassment’. Protesters are demanding the resignation of local police officials after an incident on 26 May that resulted in nine arrests.
Beka Chumburidze, Petre Ovanov, and Levan Maskharashvili sewed their lips together on Tuesday after ten days of protests. The move followed what they call a ‘provocation’ from police officers on 26 May which resulted in a brawl between a number of locals and police officers. On that day, Chiatura, like the rest of Georgia, was celebrating the centenary of the first Democratic Republic of Georgia.
In their online petition, protest organisers recounted the 26 May incident, claiming that police deputy chief Mikheil Gigauri and inspector Vepkhvia Shekhiladze, ‘probably being intoxicated’, armed with assault rifles, approached a group of men having a celebratory feast in the front yard of their block and enquired about a reported gunshot in the area.
‘Police officers put a machine gun to one of the young men’s necks and swore at him, causing tension, after which police arrested nine individuals. The arrestees were beaten at the police station, injuring four, one of whom suffered a concussion’, says the petition. Protesters told OC Media that they had called the police demanding the officers involved undergo an alcohol test, but with no result.
Levan Maskharashvili one of those on hunger strike was among the detained.
The hunger strikers and their supporters have demanded the resignation of Chiatura Police Chief Lasha Chkhitunidze and his deputy Mikheil Gigauri, as well as to requalifying the article under which one of the nine individuals arrested, Temur Goshadze, was charged. They said Goshadze is likely to face a 2–6 year prison term for ‘resisting police’, while the others were fined ₾100–₾300 ($40–$120) for ‘petty hooliganism’ and disobeying police.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Interior Ministry said they found calls to free Goshadze and the ‘forms of protests’ to be ‘unacceptable’, claiming to have evidence against Goshadze. The ministry said Goshadze, who has a prior conviction for attempted murder, physically attacked deputy police chief Mikheil Gigauri.
Davit Chumburidze, speaking on behalf of his brother Beka as well as Ovanov and Maskharashvili who all sewed their lips together, told OC Media they organised rallies in the first days after the incident, but later put demonstrations on hold for three days as ‘some local authorities promised to get involved’. In the resumed protests, Chumburidze said that ‘public servants were threatened with their jobs’ if they joined. According to the protest organisers, Chiatura Mayor Paata Nadiradze met with them but ‘his powers are probably limited when it comes to the Interior Ministry’.
OC Media was unable to reach the Mayor’s Office for comment.
In their 13 June statement, the Interior Ministry said the Internal Affairs Department had already begun to look into accusations of excessive use of force by police. The Prosecutor’s Office also informed the press they had started their own investigation into possible cases of inhumane treatment of detainees and abuse of police authority on 26 May.
Protest spokesperson Davit Chumburidze said these official reactions, as well as coverage in national media, only occured after protesters resorted to the ‘more radical measure’ of sewing their lips together.
In their original petition, Chiatura residents claim that ‘daily harassment of young people — threats of arrests via planting evidence’ started after police chief Lasha Chkhitunidze and his deputy Mikheil Gigauri were appointed. ‘There are frequent cases of drunk police officers engaging with and deliberately provoking civilians’. The petition says that this ‘damages the police’s image’ and ‘strengthens public mistrust’ towards them, which ‘could lead to even graver consequences’ than the 26 May altercation.
Chiatura is a small manganese mining town in central Georgia. A lack of alternative employment has led to poverty and what rights groups say are poor working conditions in the mines.
As of 14 June, small protests continued outside the town’s main police station in Chiatura. Protesters said they would consider cancelling their hunger strike only if ‘some tangible, specific steps are taken’ by the authorities.