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Georgian activists arrested over protest signs released without charge

5 June 2023
Activist Nika Romanadze was arrested for holding a sign insulting Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Seven Georgian anti-government protesters arrested for carrying ‘offensive’ posters — including insults towards the Prime Minister, a copy of the constitution,  and a blank sheet of paper — have been released without charge.

Those arrested, mostly civil society activists and lawyers, were released on Sunday evening after 48 hours in detention. Police had taken at least five to detention facilities outside Tbilisi, including in the city of Telavi — a two-hour drive away.

They were detained during a peaceful demonstration on Friday demanding the right to freedom of expression. Several dozen people had gathered outside parliament after a number of incidents in recent weeks in which police have damaged or confiscated protest signs.

Some during Friday’s demonstration wrote protest messages on their shirts to avoid confiscation. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

[Read on OC Media: Police confiscate anti-government banners and detain protester in Tbilisi]

During Friday’s protest, OC Media witnessed police moving in and using violence against the protesters while making arrests, explaining that the signs were ‘offensive’.

Police detain lawyer Shota Tutberidze as he sits on the stairs outside parliament. Footage: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

While several of those arrested held innocuous posters, others included the first name of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, swapping the letter ‘k’ (‘კ’) for the letter ‘ყ’ — a k sound made in the back of the throat — so as to resemble the Georgian word for ‘dick’. Such posters were widely targeted by police during protests in the previous days.

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Eduard Marikashvili (left), chair of the Georgian Democracy Initiative (GDI), was arrested while holding a blank sheet of paper. Activist Nika Romanadze (right) was also arrested. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Vano Chitashvili from Transparency International Georgia, one of the lawyers representing the detainees, said that detaining the protesters beyond the initial 24-hour pretrial detention period was unlawful. He said that while the authorities could extend this period for an additional 24 hours in order to obtain additional evidence, this was not the case on this occasion. 

‘As it turned out, this additional time was used not to gather any evidence and then present it to the court, but to lock these people in a temporary detention facility’, he said.

He also noted that the detainees may still face charges in the future. 

After his release, Georgian Democracy Initiative chair Eduard Marikashvili wrote that ‘the government has nothing left but revenge and games’.

‘[The government] takes revenge on its critics and plays with the power with which a person can reduce the entire world to 12 square metres surrounded by four walls’, he wrote.

Saba Brachveli (wearing glasses) from the Open Society Foundation was arrested after quoting to police a judgement against Georgia by the European Court of Human Rights upholding the right to hold ‘offensive’ protest posters. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

On Saturday, protesters were similarly detained at a rally in Batumi, after police confiscated a number of posters. 

According to the news site Publika, at least six people were arrested at the protest to ‘defend freedom of expression’ in Batumi, three of whom were minors. The minors were released on the same day while the others reportedly remained in custody as of Monday.

Opposition political party Droa also reported that police used a crane on Sunday to remove a banner with ‘Irakli’ written with a ‘ყ’ from their local office in Zugdidi, west Georgia.

Additional reporting by Mariam Nikuradze.