Athletes’ Case Grows into Political Standoff

Riot police appeared on Rustaveli Avenue
overnight on July 1 for the first time since
2003’s “Rose Revolution.”
The opposition parties called for a rally on July 1 to protest against, as they put it, the government’s  excessive use of force used against protesters on June 30. But the authorities and pro-governmental politicians, as well as one group of civil society representatives, hailed the Interior Ministry’s riot police for restoring order.

A riot in a court chamber, unrest in the capital city’s street, Rustaveli Avenue, and, later, fist-fights among parliamentarians at a session has topped the country’s political agenda, overshadowing recent, fierce political debates about the rule for electing Tbilisi’s City Council and Mayor.

Unrest in the capital city’s central avenue started late on June 30, after a group of 30-40 relatives, friends and colleagues of two Georgian athletes blocked the street to protest the arrest of  Aleko Davitashvili, President of the Georgian Wrestling Federation, and Georgian judo champion Giorgi Revazishvili, who are being charged with blackmail.

Protesters were angered the Tbilisi court ruling, which sentenced the two athletes to pre-trial detention earlier on June 30. The announcement of the ruling by a judge was followed by riots in the court chamber. Later on the same day, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili stated in an interview on Rustavi 2 television that “the time of the “Mkhedrioni” [the “Horesemen,” a notorious paramilitary group which operated in Georgia in the early 90s] has gone” while commenting on the arrest of the two athletes, who are suspected of extorting USD 8,000 from a Greek businessman – charges denied by Davitashvili and Revazishvili.

After this statement by the Interior Minister, which was perceived by a group of colleagues of the two detainees as a comparison between the notorious “Mkhedrioni” and the two men, sympathizers of Davitashvili and Revazishvili gathered on Rustaveli Avenue and blocked the street demanding the release of the detainees. The rally was dispersed by the Patrol Police, as well as by the special purpose units of the Interior Ministry. Some reports say that dozens, including people who did not participated in the rally, were arrested.

Several opposition party leaders, including MP Davit Gamkrelidze of the New Rights party, MP Koba Davitashvili of the Conservative Party and Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, appeared on the scene shortly after the rally was dispersed and condemned the use of force against the protesters. The opposition leaders promptly accused the authorities of employing “undemocratic” actions.

More people started gathering on Rustaveli Avenue shortly after the opposition leaders appeared on the scene. As a result, more units of the riot police were deployed to the scene by midnight. Tensions started to defuse by 2 am on July 1. Georgian television stations  provided blanket coverage of the events from Rustaveli Avenue throughout the night.

But debates continued at the parliamentary session on July 1 when the opposition MPs demanded Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s resignation. These debates grew into a fist-fighting between the MPs from the opposition and ruling National Movement party after Givi Targamadze, from the ruling party, insulted Koba Davitashvili, the leader of opposition Conservative party. Dozens of parliamentarians were engaged in this fight.

After this incident the opposition parliamentarians walked out the session and held a joint news conference, in which they called for supporters to gather in Vera Park in the evening of July 1 to express protests against “the government’s violence.”

“We should use any non-violent methods against the violence used by the authorities,” leader of the Conservatives party Koba Davitashvili said on June 1.

One of the leaders of the Republican Party, MP Levan Berdzenishvili, said at the joint news conference that the opposition leaders came on the scene on the Rustaveli Avenue after the riot police launched a use of excessive force, even against people who had nothing in common with the earlier rally that was being conducted by relatives and friends of the two athletes and were merely bystanders.

But one group of representatives from various civil society organizations, including Alex Rondeli of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Ghia Nodia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, Davit Darchiashvili, chief of the Open Society – Georgia Foundation and Levan Ramishvili of Liberty Institute, backed the authorities’ actions against the protesters, saying that the police acted in frames of the law. At a joint news conference on July 1 they said that the only mistake the police made was that they failed to prevent riots from occurring at the court’s chamber on June 30.

But another influential non-governmental group – the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association – condemned the police action as “an excessive use of force” and demanded that the law enforcers release those arrested during the rally.


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