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Zaza Saralidze, Zviad Kuprava and Malkhaz Machalikashvili with opposition politicians in the back row, June 3, 2018. Photo: screengrab from TV Pirveli

Opposition Parties to Lead Teen Murder Case Protests

Opposition parties have joined the ongoing protests in Tbilisi, marking a shift from what began as one man’s quest for justice to political party-led protests against the government. The opposition is to unveil their plans for further action at a rally scheduled at 6 pm today on Rustaveli avenue.

The announcement that the opposition would take the lead in the protests was made by leaders of the United National Movement (UNM) and its partner political parties late-night yesterday, following their consultations with Zaza Saralidze, father of the teenager murdered in December 2017, who has been protesting what he claims was a prosecution-led cover-up.

The consultations were held shortly after Zaza Saralidze addressed a group of protesters gathered on Rustaveli avenue, and urged “all political parties” to join forces and help him “dismantle the system.”

Saralidze’s appeal to the opposition parties followed his reported disagreement with Zviad Kuprava,* one of the organizers of the rally. Kuprava, who runs the Law Enforcement Reform Center – a UM-affiliated rights group, and who has assisted Saralidze in the investigation process, had reportedly favored involvement of political parties all along.

In the previous days, Saralidze had stressed the protests were strictly non-partisan, apparently in response to the criticism of some ruling party politicians that the protests had been hijacked by opposition politicians.

Zviad Kuprava, worked in the Interior Ministry from 2007 to 2013. According to Kuprava, he was fired on political grounds by then Patrol Police Chief Davit Tsinaridze, which he disputed in court and won the case, but was not reinstated to the job. In 2014, he joined the Free Zone, a UNM-affiliated youth group. Later, he went to establish an organization of his own – the Law Enforcement Reform Centre, which aims at monitoring and facilitating police reforms, as well as protecting the rights of law enforcement officers and providing legal assistance to citizens, according to its Facebook page. Since then he frequently appeared in the media, criticizing alleged corruption and the overall performance of the law enforcement bodies. Kuprava, who was described by Zaza Saralidze as his friend and relative, has been assisting the family in their attempts to investigate the teen murder case independently from the authorities.

Partisan involvement

Addressing the protesters after the consultations and standing next to Zviad Kuprava and Malkhaz Machalikashvili, father of a teenager killed during the State Security Forces operation few months ago, Saralidze reiterated his calls for unity of “all political parties and all citizens of Georgia in dismantling the system – the violent, bloody government.” So far, several parties have openly backed the protest.

UNM’s Nika Melia, who was the first to address the protesters among the politicians, said Malkhaz Machalikashvili and Zaza Saralidze were treated by the authorities “cynically: instead of giving them answers, they mocked them … and accused them of being politically-driven.”

“We have heard here many times that the system must be dismantled, but the system in this country is one single person and that is Bidzina Ivanishvili, and power needs to be taken away from him,” Melia added.

Giorgi Vashadze of the New Georgia Party spoke next, saying the opposition parties would not let the authorities to “bully” the parents of Saralidze and Machalikashvili, and would unite to “put an end to the government, to the ruling party – the criminal regime.”

MP Otar Kakhidze of the European Georgia party, who was present at yesterday’s rally as well, told reporters after the speeches that they would attend the Sunday’s demonstration in solidarity with Zaza Saralidze, but added that “consultations on specific cooperation formats” with other opposition parties would continue.

The protests in Tbilisi started mid-day on May 31, following the controversial court ruling over the teen murder case. Several thousand protesters including students, public figures and opposition politicians, gathered in front of the Prosecutor’s Office, demanding Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze’s resignation.

Shotadze resigned later on May 31, but the protests continued and moved in front of the old Parliament building in Tbilisi, where their demands radicalized and included the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s government. The rallies continued on Friday and Saturday, but with fewer protesters.

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