Riot police in the Georgian capital Tbilisi beat demonstrators and shot fleeing protestors with rubber bullets while trying to disperse anti-government demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today. Riot police later raided the private television station, Imedi TV and forced it and the Kavkasia television station to stop broadcasting. The Georgian government then declared a state of emergency, claiming there had been a coup attempt, and banned news broadcasts for 15 days, except by the state-funded Georgian Public Television.
“Even in a time of crisis, Georgians have a right to protest peacefully without being beaten by the police,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Firing rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is a complete abuse of the use of force. The government does not have a carte blanche to restrict fundamental freedoms just because it is in crisis.”
The protest rally started on November 2, 2007, when tens of thousands of protestors, led by the 10-party opposition coalition, gathered outside the parliament on Tbilisi’s main street. The protest organizers had informed the government of their intention to gather at the parliament building, as required under Georgian law. Several thousand protestors continued to demonstrate peacefully for five days outside the parliament.
But in three separate incidents on November 7, riot police in Tbilisi violently dispersed peaceful protestors. At approximately 8 a.m., police evicted a small group that had camped on the steps of parliament, including more than a dozen people on a hunger strike, and arrested several opposition leaders. According to media reports, the police prevented journalists from filming the incident, and confiscated and destroyed several television cameras.
Police remained all morning and prevented demonstrators from blocking Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare in downtown Tbilisi. By midday, the crowd had grown to several thousand, and demonstrators managed to push the police into Rustaveli Avenue. Riot police attempted to push them back. At 1 p.m., the police warned they would disperse the crowd in order to open the street. They used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to do so.
Uniformed riot police and men in black uniforms and masks chased and beat protestors with rubber truncheons. They also used rubber bullets against the demonstrators. A Human Rights Watch representative witnessed how riot police chased and beat fleeing protestors as they ran into the yard of a nearby church and into nearby streets. The protestors offered no resistance and called on each other not to resist in order not to provoke harsher retaliation from the police.
Around 5 p.m., riot police again attacked opposition demonstrators who had gathered some kilometers away from the parliament. Several thousand protestors outraged by the day’s events had gathered in an area known as Rike, outside the city center. Riot police, without warning, attacked using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. The police chased protestors and shot some in the back with rubber bullets as they tried to flee. Television reports also showed some protestors throwing stones at riot police as they fled. Police beat the leader of the People’s Party, Koba Davitashvili, who was hospitalized and is in critical condition.
The police also appear to have deliberately targeted journalists and independent observers. Two cameramen from Imedi TV were hospitalized, one with severe injuries, because of a beating by the police. Georgia’s ombudsman, Sozar Subari, was also beaten. Riot police attacked him with rubber truncheons as he was documenting the police actions. Subari said in a public statement that he believes he was deliberately targeted because as ombudsman he regularly criticizes the Georgian government for human rights abuses.
Two television stations, Imedi TV and Kavkasia, which were broadcasting extensive coverage of the demonstrations and the police response, were taken off air around 9 p.m. Imedi TV ceased broadcasting shortly after its anchor announced on live television that the riot police had entered the station. Imedi radio station also stopped broadcasting and Imedi’s website became inaccessible. A few minutes later, Kavkasia, which broadcasts only in the capital Tbilisi, also went off the air. Riot police then used tear gas to disperse a small crowd gathered in front of Imedi TV’s offices to protest its closure. Television reports showed dozens of police officers using truncheons to beat one of the protestors. Imedi TV belongs to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, but was founded and co-owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a wealthy financier and critic of the government who openly financed the opposition in Georgia.
Later in the evening, the government declared the state of emergency and suspended a number of legal rights.
“Beating journalists or shutting down television stations for reporting on the events can’t be justified by subsequently declaring a state of emergency,” said Cartner.
The exact number of injured is unknown, but the Health Ministry reported that 508 people had sought emergency assistance and some 118 of them remained hospitalized.