For the second day, riot police used violence to disperse peaceful protests, this time using force against a small group of students in the Black Sea town of Batumi in western Georgia, Human Rights Watch said today. Riot police again filled the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, during the first day of a 15-day state of emergency declared on November 7, 2007 by President Mikhail Saakashvili in response to earlier anti-government demonstrations and an alleged coup attempt.
At approximately 9:30 a.m. on November 8, a few hundred students gathered at Batumi State University to protest the police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi the previous day. Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that police attacked the group without warning, chasing and beating protesters trying to flee.
“This government came to power on a wave of nonviolent protest, so it should understand the importance of letting people express their opinions,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating protestors and imposing a virtual media blackout goes against the principles Saakashvili’s government was founded on.”
Georgia’s residents, who rely on television as their main news source, have little information about what is happening in the country. The government shut down two private Georgian television stations prior to the state of emergency declaration yesterday. The local cable company suspended BBC, CNN and other international news broadcasts today. The presidential decree on the state of emergency prohibits television and radio stations from broadcasting, with the exception of the state-funded Georgian Public Broadcaster. Although the restrictions on media do not apply to newspapers or the internet, most newspapers have a small circulation and only 7 percent of the country has access to the internet. In Tbilisi, all newspapers were sold out by midday today.
A Human Rights Watch representative interviewed several students, a professor and a journalist who witnessed the police dispersal of the demonstration in Batumi on November 8. About 30 to 50 masked riot police descended on the group of students and then chased and beat students who tried to flee. The police issued no warning prior to attacking the crowd. One witness described how five police beat one student, who accidentally fell on the stairs after running into the university building. Riot police chased other students into classrooms. Some students broke ground-floor windows in attempts to flee. The police also used tear gas to disperse the students. Georgia’s Public Broadcaster reported that seven students were injured and hospitalized, but were soon treated and released.
Under the president’s state of emergency decree, public assembly has been banned throughout the country. However, contradictory statements by senior government officials late last night appear to have left the students unaware that the ban applied to all of Georgia, rather than just Tbilisi. At 10 p.m. on November 7, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli announced that the state of emergency would be restricted only to Tbilisi. But at 1 a.m. on November 8 the economy minister, Giorgi Arveladze, announced that the state of emergency was imposed throughout the country. Participants in the Batumi protest told Human Rights Watch that, had they known the ban on protests was country-wide, they would not have participated in the demonstration.
“In an emergency, the Georgian government can restrict some rights, but it can’t send the police in to beat up peaceful protesters,” said Cartner. “The government should investigate all reports of police beatings and prosecute those found to have used excessive force on demonstrators.”
At 7 p.m. today, President Saakashvili announced snap presidential elections for January 5, 2008 and a referendum on the timing of parliamentary elections, apparently in an attempt to diffuse the crisis. The 15-day state of emergency remains in force and will be presented to parliament tomorrow for approval.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Georgia is a party, states that governments have the right to declare a state of emergency during “a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” Not every disturbance or catastrophe qualifies as a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, and governments must clearly justify the decision to proclaim a state of emergency. Under a state of emergency, governments may only limit rights and freedoms to the extent strictly required by the situation. Governments must at all times guarantee the right to life, the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, among other rights. The European Convention on Human Rights also provides similar protections.