UNM officially joins anti-government protests in Tbilisi

3 June 2018
UNM MP Nika Melia (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The opposition United National Movement Party (UNM), as well as two other minor parties, has announced they are officially joining anti-government protests currently taking place in Tbilisi. UNM MP Nika Melia addressed crowds gathered outside parliament after meeting with protest leaders and said the protests would resume on Sunday at 18:00 where they will announce a plan for how to continue

Thousands have gathered daily since Thursday when a court partially acquitted defendants in the fatal stabbing of two teenagers outside Tbilisi School #51. Protesters including the father of one of the victims, Zaza Saralidze, say the investigation into the murders was compromised by evidence tampering.

Protesters turned out on Sunday despite heavy rain (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)
Protesters have set up tents in front of Tbilisi's Parliament building (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

Saralidze, as well as Zviad Kuprava, who has emerged as one of the leaders of the protests, said on Saturday night that for past four days they had only called for ordinary citizens for support, but that now they were calling for all political parties to ‘join forces’, join the protests from Sunday, and support them in order to ‘destroy the system’.

The two earlier informed protesters that they had information from a ‘trusted source’ that Ministry of Internal Affairs was planning to arrest Kuprava. Kuprava is the head of non-government organisation the Law Enforcement Reform Centre, which calls for police reform. He is a close friend of the Saralidze family.

After calling for the opposition’s support, Kuprava met with the leaders of the UNM, the New Georgia Party, which splintered from the UNM in 2016 and has no seats in parliament, and the National Democratic Party, which also has no MPs.

Zviad Kuprava, a friend of the Saralidze family, has emerged as one of the leaders of the protests (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)
Zaza Saralidze (left) with Malkhaz Machalikashvili (right); Saralidze has been addressing the crowds daily calling for justice for his son (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)
Malkhaz Machalikashvili, the father of a teenage boy killed by security forces in the Pankisi Valley in November, has been a vocal critic of the authorities (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

After the meeting in the National Democratic Party’s offices close to parliament, Kupradze returned with the opposition leaders to parliament where they met with Saralidze and other protesters.

‘This is a new stage of the fight, a second stage which will reach the final victory. This fight is political’, Kuprava said after the meeting, ‘we all unite against the system’.

Giorgi Vashadze the leader of New Georgia, added that tomorrow’s protest will be more informative and they welcome all opposition parties to join them.

‘We will end the Georgian Dream government. The government has to resign. There should be a special election and a healthy political force has to come to power’, he added.

‘From now on, I am calling for political parties of all Georgia to join forces in order to end this system forever’, Saralidze said after the meeting.

Giorgi Vashadze, the leader of New Georgia, speaks to journalists following the meeting at their offices (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

Opposition parties Girchi and the Republicans declared on Sunday that they will not join the protests, while European Georgia MP Otar Kakhidze, who was present at the protests, told journalists the party will be participating in consultations with protest leaders and decide afterwards if they will join or not.

‘A compromised investigation’

Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili were fatally wounded on 1 December 2017 in a brawl that followed an argument in central Tbilisi’s School #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.

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

The double-killing caused shock-waves in Georgia, with some questioning whether the ‘criminal thinking of the nineties has returned’ (Luka Pertaia/OC Media)

The investigation into the murders was plagued by allegations of misconduct since its launch, with Mirza Subeliani, the father of one of the participants of the brawl and a former high-ranking employee of the Prosecutor’s Office was allegedly caught on CCTV destroying evidence from the crime scene.

The Saralidze family said Subeliani would have had access to and could have influenced the investigation, and criticised the fact that he did not resign post until three days after the event.

The lawyer of one of the defendants has also claimed misconduct. Inga Sharashenidze and forensics expert Maia Nikoleishvili said that prosecutors threatened them after a report by Nikoleishvili contradicted the Prosecutor’s Office’s official version of events. Two days later, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed they were looking into the matter.

The chief prosecutor resigns

The protests 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.

Demonstrators held pictures of the victims in a protest outside the Prosecutor's Office (Dato Parulava/OC Media)

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised later that day to reopen the investigation, a move Zaza Saralidze dismissed as an attempt by the government to ‘deceive’ him, adding that witnesses had been ‘intimidated and bought’, that evidence had been destroyed, and therefore, there could be no investigation.

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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