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The Night of Discontent: Georgia’s Civic Activists Won’t Back Down

On the night of June 2, Eduard Marikashvili’s phone buzzed with messages from colleagues sharing a disturbing video. Just minutes before, an eyewitness recorded police officers arresting peaceful demonstrators on the steps of Parliament. Marikashvili quickly realized he was watching something he had never seen: the officers appeared to target demonstrators for nothing more than the messages on their signs.

Marikashvili, the Chairman of the Georgian Democracy Initiative, an activist association, immediately called a taxi to join the demonstrations. On the way, he recreated the signs they held — empty save for Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s first name. But there was one crucial difference: by changing just one letter, Marikashvili and others were referring to PM as “a dick.”

“It didn’t matter what was written there; my point was to express my solidarity,” Marikashvili tells me.

When police seized his sign and tore it up, Marikashvili opened his backpack and took out a blank sheet of paper instead. About twenty minutes later, video shows, the police surrounded him, grabbed his paper, and arrested Marikashvili.

“It was not a verbal expression but just a peaceful expression through the written statements,” Marikashvili says. “Because the government didn’t like the content, it became the reason to detain people.”

“That was the slight difference from other cases and the new way for the government to suppress freedom of expression,” he adds.

Although the June 2-3 demonstrations were not the largest protests in Tbilisi this year, they marked the first time that the police appeared to target demonstrators for the content of their signs alone. To the detainees and human rights organizations that represent them, the arrests are an unprecedented violation of civil rights in Georgia.

Shota Tutberidze, a human rights lawyer, was the first person to face arrest. Earlier that night, he and his wife watched a video of police seizing signs from young demonstrators protesting in front of Parliament the previous day. They quickly agreed to protest themselves.

“I went there to express my dissatisfaction with the fact that policemen were grabbing the banners, including empty papers, from the students,” Tutberidze explains. “I just made a small banner and went there to just test it out.”

Around 8:30 PM, the Tutberidzes sat down on the steps of Parliament and pulled out their makeshift signs. On the backs of envelopes, they had written the same word that the police had taken from some of the young demonstrators not long before: the play on the Prime Minister’s first name.

The Tutberidzes’ decision to repeat the slogan was intentional. The couple also took issue with Garibashvili’s comments on the causes of the war in Ukraine just days before. “One of the reasons was Ukraine’s will and determination to become a member of NATO. Therefore, we see the consequences,” Garibashvili claimed, to a widespread disapproval of Georgia’s liberal circles who say he was parroting Russia’s propaganda message.

The Tutberidzes sat on the steps holding their signs for about half an hour before officers surrounded them. “Suddenly, like 20 policemen attacked me directly, without any warning,” Tutberidze recalls. “They basically grabbed me, forced me into the car, took me away in the car.”

Tutberidze believes his arrest violates his constitutional right to free expression.“Even if I or anybody else wrote down some bad words on the banner, that is still protected by freedom of speech,” he explains.

“My banner did not say anything wrong, but [in the eyes of the police] I implied something wrong. Empty banners did not say anything wrong but implied something wrong,” Tutberidze says bitterly. “We arrived to the point where unwritten, unexpressed thoughts of the person became punishable.”

For at least an hour after handcuffing Tutberidze, the police drove him around the city in what Tutberidze believes amounts to a kidnapping.

Meanwhile, Saba Brachveli, a lawyer at the “Open Society – Georgia” Foundation, an outlet funded largely by philanthropist George Soros, joined demonstrators after seeing a video of Tutberidze’s arrest on social media.

Brachveli first held a blank paper before switching to the same sign playing on the Prime Minister’s name. Soon thereafter, the police surrounded Brachveli and demanded that he hand over his paper or face arrest. “I started telling them that is not right,” Brachveli said. “‘This is my right; this comes from the Constitution.’”

The police charged him with hooliganism — a charge for swearing to the police — and disobeying the lawful orders of an officer. The police handed out the same charges to the other demonstrators arrested that night, including Marikashvili and Tutberidze. “Our arrests did not serve any purpose,” Brachveli said. “It was very evident that it was unjust and illegal.”

Only Nika Romanadze, a university student arrested at the same time as Marikashvili, does not face charges.

When the officers came to arrest Romanadze, he says they presented him with two options: put away his Irakli poster and stand on the Parliament steps silent and empty-handed, or face arrest. “I said no, that’s not democratic, and they arrested me,” Romanadze tells us.

Later, Romanadze, Marikashvili, and Brachveli were each transported to a jail in Telavi, where they remained for 48 hours. “I know the government, I know what to expect as a civil activist,” Romanadze explains. “They want you to have fear, but you have to restore that normalcy to yourself.”

Brachveli agrees that the police use 48-hour detention as a punishment. He argues that the police may only legally detain people for more than 24 hours when they need time to collect additional evidence. “They had basically no right to extend the detention period for an additional 24 hours,” Brachveli said.

“While I worked at the public defender’s office, I knew that the people who get arrested at a protest or demonstrations are always put in jail for 48 hours,” he added. “This is sort of a punishment for them that police use.”

Brachveli believes this pattern is a symptom of a greater threat to the country. “What we have here is some sort of backsliding into an authoritarian regime,” he said. “And therefore, we have seen the human rights situation and the judiciary decline during the years.”

Levan Nishnianidze, party activist and political commentator from “Girchi – More Freedom” party, detained for nearly 48 hours after participating in the demonstration, agrees. “I think it’s totally authoritarian — our government — and everybody knows that,” he said. “They will try to frighten people more and more. That’s how any authoritarian government works.”

Nishnianidze faced arrest when he approached police officers detaining another activist, Lasha Janjgava. “I asked, ‘Why are you arresting him?’” Nishnianidze tells us. “They put me in the car, too, without further explanation.”

The police officers claimed that Nishnianidze shouted and resisted arrest. “They have written complete lies,” Nishnianidze argues.

Tutberidze contends that the arrests are evidence of authoritarianism in Georgia. “We arrived to the point in Georgia, which basically equals what’s happening in, you know, Russia or North Korea,” he said. “ [These] states started to restrict not just spreading the ideas, but having the ideas and not expressing them, expressing them with the white paper — that [also] became punishable in Georgia [now].”

While some of the activists await court proceedings, Romanadze, whom the police did not charge with any crimes, looks towards the next demonstration. “I will stay active and keep going to demonstrations, [the detention] is just a memory,” he says.

Romanadze acknowledges the challenges ahead to achieve his aspirations for the country, but he is eager to continue working towards it. “I don’t want to move from Georgia. I want to change it,” he says with determination. “And I will.”

Jade Lozada is a student at Harvard University. She is currently interning at


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