The dispersal and arrest by police on January 3 of former servicemen who staged a public protest in Tbilisi against the abolition of social benefits to which they were previously entitled has been widely condemned by Georgian opposition parties and NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers Association
, human rights defender Giorgi Tughushi, and the U.S. ambassador
The men in question were veterans of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Eleven of them were charged with petty hooliganism or resisting the police. A Tbilisi court fined them 400 laris
($225) apiece on January 4. A representative of the Georgian Legion, a union that represents war veterans, told kavkaz-uzel.ru the fines are likely to trigger fresh protests as some veterans simply do not have the money
to pay them.
Georgian Legion head Gia Qarqarashvili, who commanded the Georgian forces during the 1992-93 Abkhaz war and served from May 1993 to February 1994 as defense minister under then-Georgian State Council Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, was quoted on January 6 by Caucasus Press as saying the legion would seek to have the fines rescinded.
The Georgian Interior Ministry says the veterans refused to comply with patrol police requests to remove the tents they had pitched on Heroes' Square, and resisted and verbally insulted police officers. A ministry statement
on January 4 claimed that some of the rally participants were "clearly under the influence of alcohol." Gia Nikolaishvili, a lawyer representing the veterans, told a press conference on January 4 that that latter allegation was not true, Caucasus Press reported.
Human rights ombudsman Tughushi too questioned the accuracy of the Interior Ministry's account. In a written statement
released later on January 4, he pointed out that the rally was held in full compliance with Georgia's law on assemblies and manifestations. He further pointed out that video footage does not show any tents near the memorial on Heroes' Square, thus calling into question the Interior Ministry claim that the veterans refused to remove tents.
Veterans protest on Heroes Square on January 3 was broken up by police.
Tughushi said the video footage showed both uniformed police and men in plainclothes abusing and manhandling protesters, who did not respond in kind. On that basis, Tughushi affirmed that the police action was illegal, and he formally requested that the prosecutor-general and interior minister take appropriate steps to determine those responsible and bring legal action against them.
A group of a dozen NGOs and human rights groups has similarly demanded
an official investigation. So too has U.S. Ambassador John Bass, who on January 5 said he was "disturbed" by reports of police violence of a type that "does not have a place in a democratic society."
A police officer who was seen in the video footage to hit a woman member of the opposition Georgian Party during the fracas has since been dismissed
None of the three Georgian TV stations that broadcast nationwide (Rustavi-2, Imedi TV, and the first channel of the government-funded Public Broadcaster) covered the dispersal of the protest in news bulletins the day it occurred. Georgia's Public Broadcaster on January 5 explained that failure by its lack of video footage
of the police intervention.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the police action, the incident has served to highlight, first, the Georgian authorities' sensitivity to criticism, and second, the determination of opposition parties and NGOs to avail themselves of any opportunity to show the country's leadership in a bad light.
Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia termed the police intervention "another step toward establishing a dictatorial regime," Caucasus Press reported on January 4. Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's For A Just Georgia party implicitly accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of giving the order to disperse the protest, the same agency reported on January 5.