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Thousands Protest Georgian Nightclub Raids In Tbilisi


Georgian Police Raid On Clubs Triggers Protests
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TBILISI -- Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Georgia to protest an overnight drug raid by police on two popular nightclubs in the capital, demanding the resignations of the interior minister and the prime minister.

Around 4,000 demonstrators -- many dancing to electronic music pulsating from speakers -- had gathered outside the Georgian parliament building in Tbilisi by early evening on May 12 in response to the morning raid that drew criticism for what some called an excessive use of police force against club-goers.

As night set in, the music -- and the nightclub atmosphere -- intensified, with the demonstration morphing into a kind of makeshift rave, while tents were seen being set up by protesters late in the evening.

The Interior Ministry said its officers had detained eight suspected drug dealers after storming the two clubs, Bassiani and Cafe Gallery, in the early hours of May 12.

Critics call the operation a PR stunt by police aimed at demonstrating its commitment to enforcing strict drug laws and intimidating the thriving and growing club scene in the Georgian capital.

Some club-goers allege that drugs may have been planted by police.

Thousands Protest In Tbilisi Over Police Raid On Clubs
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"The only thing they've been trying to do lately is to turn public opinion against humane drug policies," activist Beka Tsikarishvili told RFE/RL at the rally.

"This is what the recent events illustrate. So we really cannot hope that under this administration any positive changes can take place in this country," Tsikarishvili added.

The raid followed a string of what are believed to be drug-related deaths in Tbilisi in recent weeks.

Police detained several protesters near the clubs at dawn as authorities tried to close off nearby streets.

They later detained several more protesters and activists as club-goers made their way toward the parliament building to stage a spontaneous protest.

Giorgi Mshvenieradze, the head of the Georgian Democracy Initiative, a nongovernmental organization, said that some in Georgia "view clubbing subculture as something debauched and immoral."

"This is very bad. But what's even worse is that the state started playing their game and showed society that on a Friday night it can storm a nightclub with hundreds of special forces, just to detain eight people," Mshvenieradze told RFE/RL.

Mamuka Chelidze, head of the Interior Ministry's criminal police department, told a news conference that the ministry "has been conducting intensive investigative measures for the last three months to establish the facts of the drug trade in Bassiani and Gallery nightclubs."

Anna Subeliani, one of the organizers of the rally, told RFE/RL that they will not stop until their demands are met.

Another activist, Giorgi Tabagari, called the raid on the two clubs a blow to progressive social movements in Georgia.

Several leading human rights organizations in Georgia have issued a joint petition calling for the government to hold those responsible for the police operation accountable.

The groups said the raid was a "demonstration of force" that "openly and blatantly violated human rights," and they urged authorities to introduce more humane drug policies.

Georgia's ombudswoman, Nino Lomjaria, told a local television station that her representatives had met with the eight detainees and that they claimed they were apprehended several hours before police raided the clubs.

Lomjaria said she still needs to examine case materials and video footage related to the operation.

Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze told reporters on May 12 that the nightlife economy and "clubbing life will develop, and we will support it as much as possible."

But he said the "drug trade" was an issue of serious concern.

"Our sisters and brothers are dying, and I am convinced that the youth, which is now standing in front of the parliament, will stand by our side and we will fight drug traders together," Kaladze said.

Kaladze also said two of the eight detainees had been released, but police and the detainees' lawyers had yet to confirm this.

The protests in Georgia follow weeks of street demonstrations in neighboring Armenia that forced the prime minister to resign and led to the election of Nikol Pashinian, an opposition activist and politician to the premiership.

With reporting by Reuters

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