Thousands of people rallied on 12 May against the nightclub raids and police violence, demanding the PM and Interior Minister’s resignations.
The rally in front of Tbilisi’s parliament building followed a police raid on popular nightclubs Bassiani and Café Gallery. According to Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, the eight arrested drug dealers were apprehended before the raids, not in the course of them as previously assumed.
[Read more about the raids on OC Media: Eight arrested in ‘anti-drug’ raids on Tbilisi nightclubs]
Lomjaria told journalists on 12 May that the Public Defender’s Office representatives met with the people who were earlier reported arrested during club raids. They told the Public Defender’s Office that they were arrested several hours prior to the special operation.
Lomjaria also said that the Public Defender’s Office would request for the video footage from the clubs as well as court orders on raids to determine how reasonable it was to conduct the raids that night.
According to the statement by the Interior Ministry, ‘investigative activities’ were undertaken in Bassiani and Café Gallery based on pre-existing evidence that drug dealing ‘would take place’. It doesn’t specify when the eight alleged drug dealers were arrested, although a previous statement alluded that it happened during the raids.
Chaos ensued after the raids following the forceful dispersal of a spontaneous rally in front of Bassiani following the club-goers’ removal from the venue. Police used violence against the protesters and several journalists were reported injured during the brawl, including OC Media’s journalist.
A rally that followed during daytime on 12 May attracted several thousand participants and lasted until late night hours amidst heavy police presence. The protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia and called for drug policy reform. Small rallies were also held in Kutaisi and Batumi where three people detained.
— OC Media (@OCMediaorg) 12 maja 2018
(Dato Parulava /OC Media)
Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili hasn’t commented on the nightclub raids so far. A spokesperson for his office told Netgazeti that the Prime Minister wasn’t planning to make any statements yet.
The protest is set to resume at 3 p.m.
A counter-rally was announced for today by far-right groups against ‘drug propaganda’, queer people, and ‘reactionary forces’.
The raids follow a recent controversy regarding drug policy liberalisation after at least four people died from unknown drug use. The deaths have intensified calls to shut down Bassiani, an alleged drug trafficking point. Bassiani rejected the allegations on 7 May and wrote that the Georgian club scene was being targeted and discredited by ‘regressive’ and ‘pro-Russia forces’.
[Read more on OC Media: Government pushes back at policy reform as drugs claim at least 4 lives in Georgia]
Georgia has one of the strictest drug policies in Europe with every third prisoner serving their time for drug-related offences. Of the 207 illegal drugs in Georgia, the law does not differentiate quantities for 147, meaning possession of even the tiniest amount could lead to 8–20 years or lifetime imprisonment for certain substances. The availability of treatment is also limited.
[Read more on Georgia’s drug policy OC Media: Georgia’s ‘war against the people’ and the war against a ‘system that stinks’]
Georgians rallied for a more nuanced drug policy in the past. In May 2013, then 27-year-old Beka Tsikarishvili, one of the current protest’s leaders, was arrested for the possession of 69 grammes of cannabis. The ‘Beka is not a criminal’ campaign was supported by thousands in a series of street protests.
In 2015, the Constitutional Court issued an unprecedented ruling on Tsikarishvili’s case, ruling against Parliament that purchase and storing of up to 69 grammes of dry cannabis should no longer considered an imprisonable offence. He was finally fined with ₾2,000 ($820) in August 2017.
A December 2017 protest demanded urgent adoption of new legislation that had been submitted to the parliament in June. The core principle of the changes would be to move the country’s drug policy away from a criminal justice approach, treating drug use instead as a public health issue.
According to the authors of the bill, Tbilisi-based advocacy group the National Drug Policy Platform, which consists of over 40 NGOs, current drug policy concentrates on punishing drug-addicts, instead of treating them. If the bill is adopted, distribution and trafficking of drugs would still be treated as a criminal offence, with possession of small quantities of all drugs for personal use decriminalised.
The bill was put on hold in March as an interagency commission expressed support for a new government draft drug policy law which doesn’t include decriminalisation. The new bill has faced backlash from activists and rights groups as not going far enough to address the core issues.
On 8 May, the Parliament Committee on Healthcare and Social Issues postponed the hearing of the draft law for the third time. Leader of the Parliament majority Archil Talakvadze reiterated the Georgian Dream’s support for the policy changes that would focus on prevention, but also called for ‘bigger support for the law enforcement agencies in its fight against organised drug crime’.
Later that day, speaking with journalists, Health Minister Davit Sergeenko dismissed the idea of ‘drug liberalisation’ and advocated for a strategy in favour of the ‘reduction of supply and usage’ of drugs.