Protest leaders detained in Georgia

11 June 2018
Protest on Sunday (Dato Parulava /OC Media)

Opposition MP Nika Melia and protest leader Zviad Kuprava were detained in Tbilisi on Monday, during anti-government protests into the Khorava Street murder investigation. Kuprava has been sentenced, along with three others to 14 days in jail.

Melia, one of the leaders of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party who has been vocal in his support for the protests, was detained and forced into a police vehicle outside the parliament building while approaching cars attempting to question the occupants, who he claimed were high-ranking officials.

Police said that after warning him not to approach cars, they ‘prevented his violations of the law’, before shortly after freeing him.

Nika Melia being carried away by police (Caucasia TV)

MPs are immune from arrest or detention without the consent of parliament under Georgia’s constitution, unless they are caught in the act of committing an offence, in which case parliament must immediately be notified.

Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze met with Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia on Monday. Kobakhidze said he wanted to make sure that excessive force was not used by police in arrests made earlier that day, and said he also enquired about the detention of MP Nika Melia. He reiterated the police’s claim that Melia was prevented from committing a crime, taken to another location, and then ‘immediately freed’.

According to the Interior Ministry, nineteen people were arrested on Monday for petty hooliganism and disobeying police, including Kuprava.

Tbilisi City Court sentenced Kuprava and three other protesters Monday afternoon to 14 days administrative detention.

Also among those arrested was Irakli Nadiradze, a member of the Tbilisi City Council for the UNM, who was released pending his court hearing. Police initially announced they had arrested UNM Councillor Levan Khabeishvili. However, after Khabeishvili made a statement denying he had been arrested, they claimed the announcement had been a ‘technical error’

Irakli Nadiradze gives an interview while being arrested (Pirveli TV)

Zaal Udumashvili another leader of the UNM, said that ‘tens of protesters’ were arrested, including a minor. Speaking to journalists, Udumashvili said that arrests began after UNM members started to look for State Security Service and Interior Ministry officials in one of the cars near the rally.

Thousands gathered outside Tbilisi’s parliament in the week following 31 May, when Tbilisi City 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.

Hundreds again gathered in front of parliament on Sunday evening, in a rally organised by the UNM and several minor parties. Protesters blocked Rustaveli Avenue and moved tents from the pavement, where they have been for the past two weeks, out into the road.

The following day, police ordered protesters to move the tents back to the pavement, saying it was illegal to block the road if the size of the crowd did not necessitate it. When they failed to do so, police themselves moved the tents back to the pavement, leading to a scuffle with protesters and several arrests, before dismantling and removing them.

Tents being carried away by police (GPB)

Georgia’s Public Defender Nino Lomjaria supported the police’s right to move the tents from the road, but questioned the decision to dismantle and confiscate them.

The investigation continues

Two people have so far been arrested as part of the renewed investigation into the Khorava Street murders. The initial investigation was plagued by allegations of misconduct. The Interior Ministry reopened the investigation into the stabbings, following the court’s verdict.

On Saturday, Mirza Subeliani, the father of one of the participants of the brawl and a former high-ranking employee of the Prosecutor’s Office, was arrested on charges of ‘failing to report a crime’. Protesters insist Subeliani was caught on CCTV destroying evidence from the crime scene. Subeliani has pled guilty, and now faces a fine or 2–4 years in prison.

The previous day, Merab Morchadze, the father of another of the alleged participants of the fight, was arrested charged with pressuring witnesses. On Monday, Tbilisi City Court ordered Morchadze be kept in pretrial detention.

Following Subeliani’s arrest, Zaza Saralidze said the charges against him were not serious enough. He also expressed distrust towards law enforcement agencies, who he suggested could have come to an agreement with Subeliani to cover up the truth. He then demanded the resignation of Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Tsulukiani has faced mounting pressure to resign over this and what a number of leading NGOs have said are ‘failed reforms’.

On 4 June, the government set up a parliamentary commision to examine the case as well as the original investigation into it. The commission is being chaired by Sergi Kapanadze, an MP from the opposition European Georgia 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.

Khorava Street murder

Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili were fatally stabbed 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.

Thousands protested in front of Tbilisi's parliament on 31 May (Dato Parulava/OC Media)

On 2 December, two teenagers were charged with ‘premeditated murder of an underage person’, and another five for failing to report the crime.

On 31 May, Tbilisi City Court found one of the defendant’s guilty of murdering Dadunashvili but acquitted both of killing Davit Saralidze, with one found guilty of attempted murder.

The protests into the investigation 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.

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.

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