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A screen grab from a video showing a number of white men confronting and attacking black students outside a sports field in Tbilisi's Digomi neighborhood on April 8.

What started out as a friendly game of soccer among students in the Georgian capital has escalated into a criminal investigation of a possible hate crime after a group of white men attacked black students leaving the pitch.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said on April 9 that the investigation began after video of the violence appeared on Facebook.

Videos show a number of white men confronting and attacking black students outside a sports field in Tbilisi's Digomi neighborhood on April 8. One student said he was threatened with a gun during the incident.

"We were playing at the stadium when some Georgian men approached us and told us to leave," said Ben Zieg, one of the young black men, who told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that he attends New Vision University in Tbilisi.

One of those injured in the attack was Nigerian. It was not clear whether any of the other students at the scene were Georgian nationals, or if all were foreign students studying in the country.

"When we asked for a reason, they said we had no right to be in the stadium or the country because we were black. Then a whole group of men came at us with batons and stones," Zieg said. "Someone ran out and threatened to kill us if we did not leave the country."

Though Georgia has made some progress on antidiscrimination policies and legislation, hate speech and violence against some ethnic and religious minorities, as well as LGBT people, have increased in recent years.

Zieg said police were called to the scene of the attack but no one was detained even though officers were shown the video.

Another student purportedly involved in the clash told the Netgazeti.ge news website that police told the students to forget about the incident and go on with their lives.

Georgian police have come under criticism for allegedly failing to follow through on complaints of racial discrimination.

Ucha Nanuashvili, Georgia's former public defender who also headed the Human Rights Center, told RFE/RL after viewing the video that it appeared to be a hate crime and not a usual "domestic violence incident."

But authorities said the investigation was launched under Article 126 of the Criminal Code, which deals with criminal violence. Police could have opted to use Article 142, which addresses discrimination on racial grounds.

"Regrettably, very often the response by police in such cases is inadequate. During my tenure as public defender, there were many similar cases, but the problem was categorizing them correctly," he said.

Zieg said some of the students now fear reprisals.

After the video footage was published, some social media users with Georgian profiles have sent threatening and racist messages.

"What would happen if Georgians were beaten by the blacks? Would the police look differently at the situation?" said Zieg. "We will fight against this racism. In the 21st century? It’s just not understandable. This must stop!"

The Georgian Public Defender's Office says hate crime statistics have only been collected by Georgian prosecutors since 2016, although antidiscrimination legislation was passed in mid-2014.

Boris Grits in a Moscow court on January 18

A court in Moscow has scheduled April 18 for the start of a trial for a man accused of stabbing an Ekho Mosky radio journalist in the neck.

Judge Yelena Abramova on April 9 also extended the pretrial detention of the defendant, Boris Grits, until September 26.

Tatyana Felgengauer, a program host and deputy editor in chief at Ekho Moskvy, survived the October 23 knife attack.

Grits is accused of entering the radio station's headquarters in a Moscow office building, blinding a security guard with a spray, and attacking Felgengauer.

He was detained by security guards at the building and later arrested by police.

Investigators said Grits told police he had been in "telepathic contact" with Felgengauer for five years.

Russia's Investigative Committee says psychological and psychiatric evaluations have shown Grits suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

State media have long targeted Ekho Moskvy, as well as Russia's other few remaining independent media outlets, for critical reports about President Vladimir Putin's government.

Earlier in October, shortly before the attack on Felgengauer, state-run Rossia-24 TV issued a report claiming Ekho Moskvy received payments from Western nonprofit organizations to "destabilize society."

On October 27, Ekho Moskvy chief Aleksei Venediktov said one of his leading producers, Ksenia Larina, fled Russia due to concern for her safety.

Larina's departure followed a similar move in September by Yulia Latynina, host of a weekly program on Ekho Moskvy, after threats and a suspected arson attack on her car.

Based on reporting by Rapsinews, TASS, and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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