Tensions are rising in western Georgia’s Rioni River valley after police dismantled on April 11 the tents where activists protested for over 160 days the construction of the controversial Namakhvani Hydropower Plant project. The Interior Ministry cited the flooding alert of the river, saying the removal of tents was necessary to “avoid danger and protect the life and health of protesters.”
The police operation came as the police denied the leading activists that were arriving from Tbilisi, from accessing the protest site in Namakhvani village. The police have been blocking access to the entire valley, including the HPP construction site, and have set up a checkpoint in Gumati village at the southern gate of the ravine, some 10 minutes ride from the city of Kutaisi since April 3.
Activists disagree on the flooding alert reports, accusing the police of infringing their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and of attempts to squash their protest. Varlam Goletiani, leader of the resistance movement, said locals suggested moving tents to an alternative site in Namokhvani village, but police did not allow it either. The Public Defender’s Office called on the Interior Ministry to at least provide the activists with an alternative location nearby, which “will not deprive the purpose of the assembly” of its sense.
The project opponents also say the protest tent site – the only place near the construction site not yet expropriated for the HPP project, belongs to Lali Epremidze, one of the members of the HPP resistance movement, thus accusing the police of entering the private property. Enka Renewables, a company in charge of HPP construction, said, however, that it has the ownership over the land known as Epremidze’s property, claiming that the company had paid in 2019 over GEL 70,000 in compensation to Epremidze’s niece, the “factual owner.” On April 12, activists posted video footage, alleging that Epremidze’s land has been plowed overnight to prevent renewed camping by activists.
Attempted Suicide Report and Alcohol Planting Allegations
The activists movement expressed concerns as bottles of alcohol were reportedly seized as part of the dismantling operation. They claim authorities had planted alcohol to discredit the resistance movement by accusing them of alcohol addiction and misbehavior. The activists say at the tents they followed strict rules prohibiting the use of alcohol even during regular dinners.
They also note that the dismantling operation and the alcohol seizure suspiciously followed the incident on the day before, when a young man who arrived some days before to take shifts in a protest tent, mysteriously jumped and disappeared in the Rioni River. Activists take note that pro-government media circulated reports that the person might have been drunk when jumping into the river for a presumed suicide attempt.
The search operations for the young man’s body still continue.
Restrictions to Freedom of Movement and Media Activities
The week-long movement restrictions in the valley reportedly also affected journalistic activities during April 11 developments. Reacting to reports that police prevented media crews from pass through the Gumati checkpoint, the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics called interruption of media work “inadmissible.”
The Media Advocacy Coalition, which unites several Georgian CSOs, said that reasons for restrictions for journalists remained unknown, calling on the Interior Ministry to “act in consideration of high public interest over the developments in Namokhvani.”
In response to the restrictions, activists, who had to move to the Gumati area, the southern entry point of the valley, after the Namakhvani camping site dispersal, blocked the road on the night of April 11-12. Police initially reportedly warned them of addressing proportionate force if the protesters failed to open the road, but later refrained from using force.
As things stand, on the April 12 afternoon, local activists, joined by the HPP opponents from Tbilisi and elsewhere are holding protests in Gumati village. The activists are vowing to hold a large-scale rally in Tbilisi in the near future.
According to Goletiani, the main demands of Gumati protests include the restoration of the freedom of movement, lifting of restrictions, and permission to again erect tents in Namakhvani village – even on the alternative location. The activist says the road closure also fuels discord among Rioni valley residents, as those locals traveling for personal reasons are sometimes also prevented from passing the police checkpoint.
The activists, CSOs, and locals against the project, on the other hand, cite the seismic and other natural disaster risks, potential environmental damage, the contractual conditions that allow the investor to confiscate private property and utilize natural resources, and extensive right to seek the government compensation for damages, as some of their key concerns.
They are also demanding the resignation of Economy Minister Natia Turnava, whose efforts to negotiate with protesters yielded no significant results.
The Namakhvani project encompasses two separate HPPs of 333 MW and 100 MW on the Rioni River. The government hopes to enhance its energy security and to employ up to 1,600 Georgians with the “foreign direct investment in the amount of USD 800 million.”
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