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Georgians show sympathy for microfinance hostage-taker

25 November 2020
Levan Zurabashvili in the courtroom on 24 November. Photo via Facebook.

The words of a politically-minded hostage-taker have resonated with many Georgians, and have translated into a donation campaign to help him and his financially troubled family.

On 24 November, the Tbilisi City Court remanded Levan Zurabashvili, a man who took over a dozen hostages with a fake hand grenade for several hours last week to demand government action on gambling, debt, and pharmaceutical prices, into pre-trial custody. 

The court denied bail to Zurabashvili and charged him with ‘taking hostages using violence or threat of violence’, a crime punishable with 9–14 years in prison.

Meanwhile, several supporters attended his trial to express solidarity with Zurabishvili, a part of the growing outpouring of support for the alleged hostage-taker in recent days. 

Beka Tsikarishvili, a prominent drug reform activist and frequent supporter of social equality campaigns, was present inside the courthouse on Tuesday. 

‘Levan does not deserve the cruel sentence he faces… But what is at stake here is beyond freedom or imprisonment’, Tsikarishvili told OC Media. ‘A fight for his freedom is all about forcefully raising the issues he demanded to solve on the public and political agenda […] We have to fight for a political reality where no Levan would have to risk losing his own freedom to voice the pain of thousands of people’.

The standoff

Levan Zurabashvili held at least 11 hostages for several hours after storming a microfinance company office in Tbilisi on 20 November with what later turned out to be a mock hand grenade.

During the hostage situation, Zurabashvili appeared in a Facebook live video where he delivered a tirade against gambling business, excessive bank loan interests, and high prices on pharmaceutical drugs in Georgia. 

Demanding no money, he instead vowed to free everyone unharmed if the politicians ‘gathered’ and came up with regulations to tackle the problems he listed. 

[Read more on OC Media: Man arrested and hostages released after standoff in Tbilisi bank]

‘How many people have committed suicide? How many families have been ruined? For me, the most important thing is to change these laws so that the nation survives’, the defendant argued during his pre-trial hearing four days later.

According to his lawyers, Zurabashvili also instructed one of the staff to secure the money in the cash register, indicating that he did not want it. 

‘Romanticising’ a hostage-taker

Support for Levan Zurabashvili among some Georgians grew after he insisted soon after surrendering to police that his ‘only mission was to make the government start taking care of people’.

Giorgi Chochua, who represents Levan Zurabashvili in court, argued that what the defendant did was a political protest delivered through ‘performance’ — an attempt to gain public attention.

It was not only private citizens who expressed their admiration for Zurabishvili online, the Georgian labour union Solidarity Network and the Mtsvaneebi (Greens) political organisation also expressed their support. 

Some others, meanwhile, have bristled at ‘romanticising’ an alleged hostage-taker.

Prominent Georgian playwright Lasha Bughadze was among those who came out against any leniency for Zurabashvili.

‘I think we are in major intellectual and moral chaos… [him holding a mock grenade] is no relief […] for hostages who presumably had to treat this kind of social “performance” with understanding’.  

Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria was among the first to condemn ‘romanticising hostage-taking or an armed attack’. 

‘That’s how terrorism starts!’, she warned minutes after the siege ended.

Donation campaign

On the night of the incident, the 73-year-old mother of the accused, Lamara Terelidze, apologised to the hostages and to the public for her son’s actions.

Terelidze claimed that in recent months, all the family money had been spent to meet the responsibilities of a ₾5,000 ($1,500) bank loan — which they had taken to cover the medical care of her husband, who has since died. 

Tamara Terelidze said she had also lost her job after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Georgia and the country went into a lockdown.

Screengrab from Shabatis Pormula program video.

‘He was nervous, saying “I don’t have anyone but you and don’t know what I would do if something happened to you”’, a tearful Terelidze told Georgian TV channel Formula on 20 November, alleging that his son’s inability to buy medicine for her pushed him to commit the crime.

Tata Verulashvili, a sociologist who helped organise a fundraising campaign for Zurabashvili on Facebook said she was surprised by the scope and scale of support for the man. 

‘Entirely unexpectedly, there were thousands of lari in several hours on the account… a lot of it from abroad. It really surprised us that the campaign went beyond our [Facebook] group and permeated a lot of spaces’.

Verulashvili told OC Media that, as of Wednesday, they’ve crowdsourced about ₾13,000 ($3,930) for Zurabashvili and his family. 

‘Secondary issues’

Guram Imnadze of the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) disagreed that ‘talking about the reasons behind the crime, about the social-economic context and motives’ of Zurabashvili was equivalent to ‘romanticising’ the crime.

In a conversation with OC Media, he argued that one of the reasons behind the public solidarity expressed with the alleged hostage-taker was the public’s frustration with the grievances he had voiced, and with how rarely they are articulated.

‘Problems voiced by Zurabashvili are those that are directly endured by a major part of Georgian society while being disregarded on a political scene. There is nearly no discussion on gambling addiction or the unregulated financial sector and how it affects ordinary citizens’. 

The question of unregulated gambling in Georgia was briefly in the national spotlight in autumn 2019 after 29-year-old journalist Sandro Beradze, who had struggled with a gambling addiction, took his own life.

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian anti-gambling campaign kicks off with protest in Tbilisi]

A campaign against gambling advertisements and easy access to online betting sites followed the tragedy, though it did not gain traction among major political organisations. 

That said, in the country’s latest parliamentary election, held on 31 October, there were several politicians and groups that focused on specific social problems.

These included candidate Ana Dolidze who promised to regulate gambling business, the Free Georgia Party which targetted ‘pharmaceutical monopolists’ and intervened with direct action to stop evictions, and Davit Chichinadze who accused commercial banks of ‘skinning’ people with predatory loans. 

None of them ended up winning a single seat in parliament.

Polling indicates that jobs, poverty, rising prices, pensions, and wages have remained among the most important national-level issues for Georgians since 2009.

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