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Arrests in Tbilisi as queer rights activists and homophobic counter protesters face-off

14 June 2019
(Photo: Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

A small impromptu gathering of queer rights activists calling for police protection for next week’s Tbilisi Pride led to a six-and-a-half-hour stand-off with homophobic counter-protesters. The activists were eventually evacuated by police in the early hours of Saturday morning.

On 31 May, the Interior Ministry announced that it was ‘impossible’ for Pride to go ahead in the planned locations in the city centre ‘due to safety risks’. Organisers have insisted the event will still go ahead and were demanding the government guarantee their safety.

Conservative groups mobilised outside the Government Chancellery building half an hour before 14 June’s demonstration was due to take place, chanting homophobic slurs. Pride organiser Giorgi Tabagari was briefly rushed away by police after he was hit with an egg, before being returned to the demonstration.

A heavy police presence was then deployed surrounding the small group of queer rights activists near but not directly in front of the Chancellery.

Queer rights activists held signs saying: ‘Come out for equality’,
‘Come out for freedom’, etc. (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

Tabagari told OC Media that the organisers had informed police of their intentions three hours before the protest was due to take place. ‘This is not how a democratic state functions’, he said. He said he expected the government to be ‘more assertive’ in protecting their rights.

‘The government needs to take some action, they need to make a very explicit statement that what is happening now is not OK, and they need to communicate with aggressive groups and tell them that they need to give us a space to protest, and we are not planning to leave here until we hear this kind of statement ’.

‘We are not going to back off, we are not going to surrender public spaces to these people’, he added.

Giorgi Tabagari (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

Mariam Kvartskhelia another of the organisers of Tbilisi Pride, told OC Media that those confronting them included ‘radical’ and ‘fascist’ groups.

Earlier on Friday, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, said that  Tbilisi Pride was ‘completely unacceptable’ and aimed to provoke ‘unrest and conflict' in Georgia. He said that urged the government not to allow it to take place and said queer people were pretending to be persecuted in order to get foreign donor money.

Commenting on the statement Kvartskhelia said the Church was ‘provoking people to commit violence’.

‘This was a very clear declaration from them that they are supporting violence’, she said. A number of priests were among the counter-protesters.

‘We are just fighting for our dignity’, she added.

Protesters chanted ‘for freedom! for equality!’, insisting they would not leave until high officials including the Prime Minister came out and pledged to support their right to freedom of assembly.

Counter-protesters clashed with police several times leading to a number of arrests. (Robin Fabbro / OC Media)

At least eight counter-protesters were detained by police, including for attacking journalists, On.ge reported.

The opposition European Georgia and Republican parties both expressed support for the demonstrators and demanded their freedom of expression be protected.

‘All these crimes go unpunished’

Giorgi Gotseridze, a lawyer from rights group the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) who was present at the demonstration said that this was an example of how queer people were deprived of their rights in Georgia.

‘They are surrounded by supporters of the Orthodox Church and what they want is for people to leave this area because of their sexual orientation and gender identity’, Gotseridze told OC Media.

He said that freedom of assembly and expression was guaranteed by both Georgia’s constitution and the European Convention on Human rights, of which Georgia is a signatory.

‘It is crucial for the government to protect the freedom of expression of the queer community’, he said.

Queer rights activists were evacuated in waiting minibuses. (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

He also said that perpetrators of homophobic violence were rarely brought to justice. ‘We see that all these crimes go unpunished’, he said.

Gotseridze said that while the government did not directly endorse homophobia, they ‘hide behind orthodox right-wing groups’, and that ‘queer people are paying the price every day.

‘Participating in Pride would not help our situation’

Earlier on Friday, Georgian transgender woman Gabriela Roskipova-Romanova said during a press conference that transgender people would not join the pride week events.

She said they ‘respected LGBTQ activists’ in their fight against inequality but added that ‘participating or not participating in Pride, unfortunately, would not help the grave situation and sense of insecurity that we experience today’.

Roskipova-Romanova urged the Interior Ministry to protect transgender people in Georgia from the 'frequent attacks' they are subjected to.

She said that ‘after announcing Pride, attacks on women sex-workers became systematic’.

In a recent report on Georgia after visiting country in late 2018, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity noted that ‘prejudice among police officers is particularly acute towards trans sex workers’

‘The Independent Expert received repeated complaints of abuse of authority, transphobic attitudes, verbal and physical abuse, and degrading or humiliating treatment’ the report said.

Georgia’s first ever Pride

Georgia’s first ever queer pride is planned for 18–23 June in Tbilisi; plans include cultural events, an international conference and the pride march. When it was announced in February, the organisers said the march would not be a festive event because ‘Georgian queer people have little to celebrate’, while far-right groups vowed to thwart it.

On 31 May, the Interior Ministry announced they could not provide protection for the march in the proposed locations.

‘The Tbilisi Pride group was offered other forms of expression and alternatives to holding a gathering, which would be safer for the participants’, they said.

The first ever Tbilisi Pride is planned for 18–23 June.

Tbilisi Pride organiser Giorgi Tabagari told OC Media that they had suggested two locations for the event in the centre of Tbilisi. He did not specify the locations but said they did not include Rustaveli Avenue or the square in front of the Government Chancellery, both frequent locations for large protests and gatherings.

Tabagari said that though officials did not directly suggest specific alternatives, they hinted at enclosed spaces, such as a stadium.

Shortly after the ministry released their statement, the Tbilisi Pride organisers held a press conference in which they spoke of alleged warnings from an ‘unidentified government representative’. Tabagari said he met the official in the street under ‘suspicious circumstances’.

‘He tried to make us change or abolish our plans by intimidating us. It is not the first time that the government has resorted to intimidation and terror towards LGBT people’, the group said.

The organisers said that the government was trying to ‘hide queer people’ instead of tackling the hatred and aggression towards them. They insisted they would not cancel or change their plans.

‘Family purity’ day

On 17 May 2019, queer rights activists abstained from holding a demonstration in Tbilisi for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia over safety concerns.

After warnings from far-right groups that anti-homophobic demonstrations would be met with violence, the Equality Movement, Women’s Initiatives Supporting Group, and other queer rights groups decided to limit themselves to online campaigns only.

Queer rights activist hung a lone rainbow flag in Tbilisi on 17 May 2019 (Tbilisi Pride)

On 17 May hundreds of people, including priests, churchgoers and far-right groups took to the streets to protest ‘sodomy’.

Some of them came out to celebrate Family Purity Day, a holiday created by the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2014, a year after thousands of people led by priests attacked several dozen queer rights demonstrators in the city.

2019’s ‘family purity’ march was smaller than in previous years. (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

The police regularly issue statements prior to 17 May pledging safety guarantees for protesters, and 2019 was no different.

On 16 May, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that ‘the ministry protects the freedom of expression of people regardless of their political and other views, gender, religious belonging, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics’.

However, the ministry failed to protect the freedom of assembly of several dozen queer rights activists in 2013, when a homophobic mob led by priests attacked demonstrators on 17 May. Despite numerous videos depicting the acts of violence, none of the attackers were held responsible.

Women brandishing nettles in a homophobic rally on 17 May 2013 (Mari Nikuradze)

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