The Georgian government is facing pressure to open an investigation into the conduct of riot police during a May 26 protest in Tbilisi that left four people dead.
In a June 1 statement, the international watchdog group Amnesty International called on President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration to investigate allegations about the use of excessive force by security forces as they cleared anti-government protesters from in front of Georgia’s parliament building. US Ambassador Robert Bass, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Commission and Human Rights Watch have issued similar appeals.
Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Shota Utiashvili denied claims of police violence, but said that the ministry would “look into the cases and see if excess force was used.”
“The [video] footage will be reviewed to see if there is a necessity, or even grounds to start a formal investigation,” Utiashvili said. He added that “overall” the security sweep was conducted professionally.
The attention of government critics is riveted on the deaths of two men – Suliko Asatiani and Niko Kvintradze -- whose bodies were found on May 28 on a Tbilisi rooftop, not far from the demonstration site.
Evidence suggests the two were accidentally electrocuted in a mishap, law-enforcement officials maintain. Friends of Kvintradze -- citing photos that show him handcuffed on May 26 and sitting on the street -- allege that riot police beat the pair to death, then dumped the bodies.
Scores of protesters and journalists were beaten, shot with rubber bullets or arrested during the May 26 incident. The demonstrators had sought to disrupt an Independence Day parade on central Rustaveli Avenue. The General Prosecutor’s Office told EurasiaNet.org that it does not know how many people detained on May 26 remain in custody. The Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a non-profit group, put the number at 160.
Dozens of diplomats, Georgian journalists and opposition politicians signed a letter sent to Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili that highlights the rough treatment of local journalists covering the incident. Law-enforcement officers reportedly improperly seized cameras and other equipment belonging to accredited journalists. [Editor’s Note: The Media Advocacy Coalition, a group supported by the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF), coordinated the letter-writing initiative. OSGF and the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF) are part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF].
Saakashvili administration officials so far have focused on uncovering possible links between the May 26 protesters and Russia. The official view of the May 26 events is that the melee was a failed, Russia-backed attempt to overthrow the government.
Protest leader Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker and ex-Saakashvili ally, is “a subject of interest” in a government criminal investigation into the supposed coup attempt, said Utiashvili, the Interior Ministry spokesperson. The government has filed criminal charges against Burjanadze’s husband, ex-border police boss Badri Bitsadze, for supposedly planning an armed attack against police.
EurasiaNet.org could not reach Burjanadze for comment, but in May 30 statements to the press, the onetime Rose Revolution leader denied the allegations, claiming that the government is trying to “neutralize Burjanadze” by “discrediting and terrorizing her family members.”
The charges filed against Bitsadze, whose whereabouts are unknown, carry a seven-year prison term. In a peculiar legal twist, a Tbilisi court on June 1 granted him a 100,000-lari ($60,110) bail, even though he has not yet been arrested.
In a June 1 interview with the Euronews cable television network, Saakashvili suggested that security forces showed restraint in dealing with the protesters, while acknowledging room for improvement. He noted that one of those killed during the melee was a police officer who was hit by a car driven by a Burjandze supporter.
“Certainly I would be the last one to want to use violence,” he said. The president went on to say that emotions ran “high” during the May 26 events. “We tamed these emotions, but, of course, we need to upgrade ourselves even further,” he said in reference to the police response.
Tina Khidasheli, a prominent figure in the opposition Republican Party, said the government bungled its response to the May 26 protest. If officials had information that Burjanadze, Bitsadze or any other protest organizer was contemplating the government’s violent overthrow, they should have preempted the protest – not have waited until May 26 to act, she said. “The government has an obligation to say no to the notification [for a protest] if the police has information that there is a threat to … national security,” she said. Utiashvili responded that police were focused on monitoring the situation to catch the suspected plotters in action – a move, he stressed, that would give the government’s charges about an armed uprising more weight.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.