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Georgia: Opposition Lawmakers Protest Violence Against Demonstrators

A protester confronts police yesterday in Tbilisi Opposition lawmakers in the Georgian parliament today demanded the resignation of the country's interior minister. The call followed clashes yesterday between riot police and hundreds of protesters attempting to block a major road in the capital Tbilisi. Opposition leaders joined the protesters, who had gathered in support of two prominent athletes accused of extortion, and the demonstration quickly grew into a protest aimed at the ruling authorities. Dozens of protesters and opposition activists were detained.

Prague, 1 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli today defended the actions of the police during the protests in Tbilisi the day before.

“We allow such disorder in central Tbilisi. I’m very pleased [with the police’s actions] and I want to thank our policemen for their professionalism once again," Nogaideli said.

Earlier today, opposition lawmakers demanded Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's resignation. One opposition lawmaker had his nose broken as fistfights erupted in the parliament chamber.

The move came after hundreds of people, mainly athletes, blocked Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue to protest the arrest of two well-known sportsmen.

Alexi Davitashvili, the president of the Georgian Wrestling Federation, and judo champion Georgy Revazishvili face charges of blackmail and extortion of $8,000 from a Greek businessman. Both athletes have denied any wrongdoing.

Opposition leaders joined the crowd to express anger that police had not allowed an earlier rally in support of the two athletes. The protest soon grew into a demonstration against the central authorities.

Anti-riot police outfitted with masks and truncheons and special military forces carrying machine guns violently dispersed the rally -- although no shots were fired.

Interior Ministry spokesman Guram Donadze said some 25 people were detained overnight on suspicion of organizing the unrest.

Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, told Russia’s RTR television the protest is likely to lead to more demonstrations in the country.

“The cruel attack on peaceful civilians, the illegal arrests and detentions were conducted with the use of special forces, and most importantly the use of military units. Tbilisi doesn’t remember anything similar since 9 April [1989, when a crackdown by Soviet troops on nationalist protestors left 21 dead]. What happened is unfortunate. It won’t be left unpunished. The people are likely to react to this,” Natelashvili said.

Four members of the opposition National-Democratic Party and a member of New Rightist Party were arrested.

The Georgian Interior Ministry announced today that a preliminary case was launched against the detainees on charges of organizing of mass unrest under Article 226 of the Georgian Criminal Code.

David Gamkhrelidze, head of the New Rightists, denied any involvement in organizing protests.

“We, members of parliament, came there only after force had been used against the peaceful population, against people who were standing on the sidewalks and were not participating in the mess. Innocent young people were beaten and pushed into the police cars," Gamkhrelidze said.

Supporters of Grigola Rogava, a member of the National-Democratic Party of Georgia, said he was standing outside the party's offices on Rustaveli Avenue when police forced him into a patrol car.

Buchiki Kardava, the party's president, said: “This is a disgrace, we can't just let it go unanswered. Saakashvili's totalitarian regime has shown its face."

The arrest of the two athletes appears to be part of the government's anticorruption drive.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who was inaugurated president in 2004 after leading the country's Rose Revolution, has vowed to fight the widespread graft that left Georgia deeply impoverished during the reign of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Interior Minister Merabishvili said that the athletes would be treated like any other citizen, adding: “In Georgia all are equal before the law, all the more so if they are famous.”

Opposition leaders called on Georgians to continue the protest later today outside parliament.

New Rightists leader Gamkhrelidze said: "I have no illusions that there will be 50,000 people, but this protest is necessary so that the authorities can see that not all is going as they thought it would."

Traffic on Rustaveli Avenue had returned to normal as of this morning.

(RFE/RL’s Georgian Service contributed to this report.)