Georgia's law enforcement and the former Soviet republic's "repressive" drug laws have come under heavy criticism after a pair of local rappers were arrested on possession charges punishable by decades in prison.
Mishka Mgaloblishvili, 28, and Giorgi Keburia, 21, who go by the stage names Young Mic and Kay G as the rap duo Birja Mafia, were apprehended on June 6 after police said the two were caught carrying the recreational drug ecstasy.
The pair, who claimed during their June 9 hearing that the drugs were planted on them by police after they released a video portraying an officer as a dog, face sentences of up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The case and claims of police retaliation has led to scrutiny from the Public Defender's Office, which said it had opened an investigation into possible police abuse and any violations of free speech.
Thousands of protesters, meanwhile, took to the streets of Tbilisi over the weekend against alleged police corruption and what many consider to be the country's repressive drug policies.
"The arrest of Birja Mafia is a consequence of Georgian men being reactionary creatures and being more than willing to abuse their authority to settle a personal vendetta," the newspaper Georgia Today wrote in an opinion piece on June 12.
"Mishka Mgaloblishvili was randomly accosted on his way home the day after his video went online; the police then just happened to find [ecstasy] on his person. It is a perfect example of the pathetic type of Georgian intrigue that in other countries would be ridiculed for its clumsiness," it added.
More Progress Needed
Georgia, which is strategically important for the West and is criss-crossed with pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe, has pushed hard for greater political and economic integration with the European Union and other Western structures.
While the country has made progress on issues such as corruption, it has been called on to do more, most recently by the Council of Europe, which in January recommended the government take measures to further enhance transparency among public officials.
At a court hearing on June 9, Mgaloblishvili said officers planted drugs on them because of the video by the duo mocking the police and portraying an officer as a dog.
Keburia said during his hearing that after his detention he was told by the police officers, "Let's see how you'll sing now."
Mgaloblishvili's wife, Erica Copeland, told Netgazeti that the video was financed by the entertainment website Adjaranet, which told the rappers to remove it after its release on YouTube.
"They called from Adjaranet and told Mishka that somebody might face problems, so he deleted the video," Netgazeti quoted Copeland as saying, noting that an updated version of the video with the policeman blurred out had replaced the original.
Calls For Reform
In reaction to the case, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in a June 10 statement that the country's drug policy was "overly harsh, and its liberalization is in order."
In Georgia, as in many other former Soviet republics, drug laws have changed little and still focus on the prosecution and punishment of users, with no distinction between possession for personal use or for trafficking.
Kvirikashvili called for parliament to adopt a "modified, more humane, and European law" by the legislature's autumn sessions and looked to assure the country's youths that politicians were taking human rights seriously.
"Our generation knows well, and has experienced firsthand, how the system should not work, so we are sparing no effort to build a country where freedom of speech, expression, personal individualism will be a fact, not a promise," he said in the statement.
"No young person, no individual has been punished for freedom of speech under our government, nor will our society ever face this threat," he added.