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Georgian Activists Protesting 'Foreign Agent' Law Say Their Children Are Being Threatened 

TBILISI -- Georgian activists and politicians protesting against a controversial "foreign agent" law say that they and their children are receiving threatening phone calls from abroad.

According to numerous stories shared with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, unidentified individuals have been calling the activists and opposition politicians late at night or very early in the morning.

The calls have been coming from international numbers, including from Azerbaijan, South Africa, Burundi, Morocco, and Ukraine, as well as through local mobile operators.

The alleged harassment comes as several Georgian opposition figures have suffered serious injuries after being attacked by unknown assailants and police have violently dispersed protesters in the capital, Tbilisi, with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.

Under the proposed "foreign agent" law, which parliament on May 14 adopted on its third and final reading, media and nongovernmental organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad would be obligated to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power."

Opponents say the legislation, if passed, would be a threat to free speech and is similar to "foreign agent" legislation passed in Russia, which has been used to clamp down on opposition and curtail independent journalism.

One of the children said to have received a threatening phone call was the 11-year-old daughter of Sopo Gelava, a researcher at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), a disinformation analytical unit of the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, and Giorgi Noniashvili, a member of the opposition European Georgia party.

Sopo Gelava
Sopo Gelava

Gelava told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that her daughter was enjoying her birthday party on May 9 and didn't hear the calls from abroad. After noticing the missed calls on her phone, she informed her parents.

Gelava says she'd heard about threatening calls targeting politically active individuals, but "had no idea that these calls would target a minor." The phone number her daughter uses is registered under Gelava's name, although she says that she has never personally used this number.

Giorgi Noniashvili's Facebook post showing the calls from abroad

A member of the opposition It's Time party, Tamta Gogoladze, said that she received a threatening phone call,where unidentified individuals swore at her and used "unpleasant words."

"I warned my mother that they might call her and verbally abuse her," Gogoladze said. "My mom and I both laughed it off, but when they called my little sister, a child I don't even live with, it obviously wasn't funny anymore."

'She Told Me That I Was A Traitor'

According to Gogoladze, the callers asked her 13-year-old sister over the phone why her elder sibling went to rallies and why she was ruining the country. "I apologized to [my sister] for having such a bad day because of me. She actually calmed me down, but, obviously, it was a stressful experience and it affected her."

Now that parliament has passed the law, it will go for approval to Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who has supported peaceful protests and criticized the government for ignoring the views of those taking to the streets. If the president does veto the law, parliament then has one month to override the veto.

Archil Mchedlishvili, a political activist from the eastern city of Telavi who has taken part in the recent protests, told RFE/RL that both he and his young son were called from different numbers.

"It was a woman's voice.... [She] told me that I was a traitor...and then hung up," Mchedlishvili said. "Then they called my son from the same number and asked if I was paid to go to the protests. That caller was also a woman, and she spoke politely."

Social media users have also posted accounts of similar phone calls that they say demonstrators and their families have received.

Khatia Dekanoidze, an opposition deputy in parliament, said her 16-year-old niece received a call from a foreign number on May 9.

Khatia Dekanoidze
Khatia Dekanoidze

"It was a man's voice," she said, "and as soon as [my niece] realized what was happening, she immediately hung up. The person [calling] realized that a child answered, but he stayed on the line."

Ana Tavkhelidze, a lawyer from the Tbilisi-based Partnership for Human Rights group, said that she suspects the people behind the phone calls illegally obtained the private numbers from the Interior Ministry's database.

"No other agency, except the Interior Ministry, has collected such data, including the contact details of family members. Personal identification numbers, addresses, of family members, even cousins and aunts, are included in this data," Tavkhelidze said. "I have personally seen these databases and I know what they look like."

Tavkhelidze called on those who have received the phone calls to proactively contact the Special Investigation Service (SIS), a state body that investigates public officials -- including those in law enforcement and the government -- accused of wrongdoing.

However, Tavkhelidze adds that, under Georgian law, the SIS should initiate an investigation based on the available public information, without needing direct complaints from victims.

It's not clear whether the SIS has opened an investigation into the alleged threats. RFE/RL's Georgian Service has sent repeated requests to the SIS asking for clarification, but at the time of publication had received no answer.

On May 7, the SIS announced that it was gathering evidence concerning reports of police violence against protesters in front of parliament. The agency has also opened an investigation into the violent attack on parliamentary deputy Levan Khabeishvili, the leader of Georgia's biggest opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM).

Activists say the threats against them and their family members are intensifying. Journalist Davit Chabashvili told RFE/RL that he received a phone call "forbidding" him from participating in the protests.

In a recording of part of the call that Chabashvili posted on his Facebook page, an unidentified man can be heard saying: "I'm telling you, I won't see you coming to the rallies again. I'm warning you.... I know very well that you are going to the ENM's rallies. If I notice you there again, I will talk to you differently."

Despite the threats, many of the activists have said they won't be frightened into not attending.

"They cannot scare us like that, on the contrary," opposition deputy Dekanoidze said.

Especially not her niece, she said. "She is a very intelligent girl. She goes to the protests and knows what she stands for."

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    Nino Tarkhnishvili

    Nino Tarkhnishvili has worked in the Tbilisi bureau of RFE/RL's Georgian Service since 2009. Her work focuses on health, human rights, education, minorities, and other social issues.  

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