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Protesters defy Tbilisi mayor over Christmas tree

12 November 2018
Malkhaz Machalikashvili (left) and Zaza Saralidze (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

Protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, have defied demands by Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze to clear the area in front of the parliament building to make room for a Christmas tree.

Six major NGO’s including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, ISFED, and Transparency International — Georgia,  succeeded in setting up tents outside parliament after Kaladze told Fathers for Truth protesters Zaza Saralidze and Malkhaz Machalikashvili they should ‘find somewhere else to protest’.

The two have been camped out in front of parliament continuously for months accusing the government of abuse of power.

Saralidze, is the father of 16-year-old Davit Saralidze, who was murdered outside a school in Tbilisi in December, while Machalikashvili’s son, Temirlan Machalikashvili, was killed in a special operation in December 2017.

The groups said they were protesting against the restriction of the ‘constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly’.

Police initially tried to prevent them setting up tents, citing security concerns. But after a scuffle with police which resulted in both Saralidze and his mother falling ill and being hospitalised, protesters succeeded in setting up 15 tents in front of parliament. 

Supporters of the protest launched an online petition saying they did not want a Christmas tree from City Hall if it meant ‘violating human rights’. The petition has over 9,000 signatures.

Georgian Dream U-turn

Later that night, Parliamentary Vice-Speaker Tamar Chugoshvili, a member of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, called on Tbilisi City Hall and the Interior Ministry to ‘follow the regulations’ which ‘did not prohibit setting up a tent unless it prevented traffic movement or endangered functioning of any institution’.

Kaladze, who also serves as general secretary of Georgian Dream, claimed the following day that City Hall did not have the right to ban the protest, claiming his deadline of 7 December for protesters to leave was a ‘mere recommendation’.

Aleko Elisashvili, a runner-up in the 2017 Tbilisi mayoral elections, former Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, a former ally of Georgian Dream, and others were critical of the government’s actions.

Elisashvili and Usupashvli both pointed out that tents were widely used in Tbilisi during protest campaigns led by a number of current Georgian Dream leaders against the previous government.

Legal challenge

The authorities have attempted to prevent Saralidze and Machalikashvili from setting up tents in front of parliament on the city’s central Rustaveli avenue several times throughout their protest.

On 26 October, police detained Saralidze and charged him with assaulting a police officer with a tent pole as he tried to prevent them from taking the tent away.

He was later released on bail but faces up to 7 years in prison if convicted.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili in front of a poster reading '[Georgian] Dream kills'.(Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

On 9 November, Georgia’s Public Defender Nino Lomjaria stated that the authorities preventing protest leaders from setting up a tent ‘constituted an illegal restriction of the freedom of assembly’.

She called Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze’s demand that protesters clear the area for the traditional Christmas tree there an ‘artificial and illegal argument’.

A number of major rights groups expressed the same position.

The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) pointed to a 2016 case they won against Tbilisi City Hall after they banned environmental group Guerilla Gardeners from setting up tents in front of the city administration building.

The Court ruled the ban was an infringement of civil liberties.

Protest leaders represented by rights groups GYLA and EMC have mounted a legal challenge against the authorities’ attempts to evict them.

The Interior Ministry argued in court that their actions were based on ‘secret information’ concerning security matters. They have been given until 15 November to present the evidence to the judge.

Birthday commemorations

On Monday, Machalikashvili, whose son Temirlan was killed by security forces in Georgia’s eastern Pankisi Valley in December 2017, was joined by Saralidze in front of Georgian Dream’s offices, accusing government of killing an ‘innocent youth’.

Temirlan would have celebrated his 20th birthday that day.

Malkhaz Machalikashvili's mother during the protest on 12 November in front of the Georgian Dream office (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

‘You are not men enough to come out and admit your guilt. I demand the state admits their crime’, Machalikashvili said during the rally, joined by several dozen people from Pankisi.

The rally specifically targeted Soso Gogashvili, the former deputy head of the State Security Service (SSG), who is currently heading the election campaign of presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili. Georgian Dream has endorsed Zurabishvili for president and campaigned for her.

Machalikashvili’s family identified Gogashvili as being responsible for the special operation in which Temirlan was killed. The family insist he was shot dead while asleep in his bed.

Machalikashvili also named Vakhtang Gomelauri, the head of the SSG, and the special forces team members in the operation as being responsible for his son’s death.

[Read on OC Media: Questions in Pankisi, after Georgian Security Services kill teen]

Khorava Street commission updates

On 12 November, the opposition European Georgia Party summoned Interior Ministry Giorgi Gakharia to update parliament on how they were proceeding with the recommendations of the Investigative Parliamentary Commission into the Khorava Street murders.

On 31 May, Tbilisi City Court acquitted both suspects in the case of striking the killing blows to Davit Saralidze, leaving open the question of who killed him.

Zaza Saralidze (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The commission concluded on 5 September that the investigation into the killings was compromised to protect a high-ranking official and his relatives. They held the Interior Minister and Justice Minister ‘politically responsible’ for this.

The opposition-led commission said that Mirza Subeliani, a former Prosecutor’s Office official, may have compromised the investigation and should have been investigated for evidence tampering and pressuring witnesses.

Authorities arrested and charged Subeliani only for failing to report a crime. Leaked recordings aired by opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 in mid-September suggested he had agreed with the authorities to take the fall and be jailed for a year only.

[Understand Georgia’s tapes scandals on OC Media: Georgia’s tapes scandals suggest something is rotten at the top of Georgian politics]

Georgian Dream leaders including Gakharia immediately disputed the findings of the commission, labelling them ‘politicised’.

However, on Monday, Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze told MPs that Gakharia was ready to meet them at their earliest convenience.

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