Mr. Ivane Merabishvili
Minister of Interior
Ministry of Interior of Georgia
10, Gulua Street
Mr. Zurab Adeishvili
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice of Georgia
30, Rustaveli Avenue
Dear Ministers Merabishvili and Adeishvili,
I am writing to express our profound concern about the growing number of physical attacks on opposition activists and peaceful demonstrators who have been engaging in the protests that began in Tbilisi on April 9. Based on reports by the ombudsman's office and the Public Advocacy NGO Coalition, and a number of Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, we are concerned that the attacks appear to be a concerted effort to intimidate the demonstrators and prevent them from exercising their right to freedom of assembly. Human Rights Watch urges you to take all appropriate measures to promptly and fully investigate the attacks, bring the perpetrators to justice, and make clear that such politically motivated violence will be neither tolerated nor condoned.
In addition to the attacks we have documented and set out below, according to the ombudsman's office and the Public Advocacy NGO Coalition dozens of attacks have taken place between April 9 and 25. They all followed a striking pattern in which unidentified men in civilian clothes, often armed with rubber truncheons and wearing masks, beat and threatened individual demonstrators late at night as they were leaving protests sites-on Rustaveli Avenue, at the public television building and Presidential Administration. These attacks resulted in broken bones, concussions, and other injuries.
In at least two cases documented by Human Rights Watch, patrol police appeared to be in the vicinity of the attack and in a position to intervene but did not do so. In most cases documented by Human Rights Watch, law enforcement agencies took victims' reports but to the best of our knowledge took no other action. In some cases, the victims were able to name their assailants, or the license plate numbers of the vehicles they used, yet police did not appear to apprehend the attacker or take further investigative steps.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine victims who were attacked in seven different incidents. These include:
On April 9, around 10:30 p.m., Natia Archvadze, Lasha Kopaliani and two other men were returning home from a protest on Rustaveli Avenue, when they say they were attacked by 15 masked men armed with rubber truncheons. All four are students and members of the youth movement "Ratom?" [Why?], which has been actively participating in the demonstrations. Natia Archvadze, a 19-year-old student, described the assault to Human Rights Watch thus:
Three cars caught up with us near the Baratashvili Bridge - two Range Rover jeeps and a silver Fiat. Neither of the cars had license plates. They blocked our way from the back and side. About 15 men with masks came out and ... started beating us. When Lasha got out of the car, they hit him with a truncheon and he fell down. They continued to assault him; they were beating him on the head and chest area. One of the other men was hit on the head before he got out of the car and he lost consciousness. I tried to get out of the car to help, but they pushed the car door and would not let me get out. They cursed at me and ordered me to stay in the car.
The incident lasted for about five to eight minutes, after which the assailants fled. The students went to the ombudsman's office and made a complaint. Lasha Kopaliani was hospitalized in Mikhailov Hospital of Tbilisi, where he was diagnosed with a concussion and questioned by a police investigator. Almost one month later, Natia Archvadze, a key witness to the attack, has not been questioned.
On April 10, around 9:30 p.m., Natia Archvadze and a female friend were attacked again near Rustaveli Avenue as they were trying to buy some food near the protest site. Both women were clearly identifiable, as they wore "Ratom?" t-shirts. Two cars, an Opel Astra and a silver BMW approached; about eight to ten young men, without masks, came out and started to harass the women. Archvadze told Human Rights Watch that she remembered the license plate number of at least one car and recognized two of the assailants and could name them. The assailants verbally abused the girls and tore the t-shirt off one of them. They also took the stickers and flyers that the girls had. One of the assailants whom Archvadze recognized called her later to warn that she would be in serious trouble if she did not quit "Ratom?" The women filed a complaint with the ombudsman's office. On April 11, Archvadze was questioned by police, and a criminal case was opened concerning the incident, but no one was apprehended, although she named the assailants.
On April 10, at around 9 p.m., a 20-year-old student, Oleg Simonian, and his friend Vova Stepanov were walking towards the Rustaveli Avenue protest, holding their university flag. They have described how, near the Academy of Science's building on Rustaveli Avenue, a BMW jeep cut them off, and five men attacked Simonian and Stepanov. Oleg Simonian could remember the license plate number of a silver X5 BMW jeep car. He told Human Rights Watch:
About five men from 25 to 30 years old in civilian clothes and without masks rushed out of the car and attacked us. They had rubber truncheons and hit me on [my] stomach and back area. They cursed us and shouted: "let's see how tough you are now!" We yelled for help and some people ran towards us. They got into the car and drove away quickly also taking our flag.
The young men gave statements to the ombudsman's office, which forwarded the case to the Ministry of Interior; one month later, the victims have not been questioned.
On April 10, around 9 p.m., 26-year-old Shmagi Gelbakhiani, a member of the opposition Republican Party, was walking with several friends from the protest in front of the public television building to Rustaveli Avenue. He has described how, near the War Hero Memorial at the Varazi Rise, a black jeep stopped near them, and four or five men armed with rubber truncheons attacked them. The assailants hit Gelbakhiani several times on the head with a truncheon, causing him to lose consciousness. Gelbakhiani states that he regained consciousness when suffering another assault and ran away.
Gelbakhiani ran towards the other demonstrators on Kostava Avenue, calling for help. He was transferred to the Republican Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion, treated, and released after a few hours. A police investigator questioned him at the hospital, but it is not known whether other investigative steps were taken. Human Rights Watch interviewed another victim of the attack who corroborated the story. Police have not questioned this victim, even though he was present at the hospital together with Gelbakhiani. Both victims claim that patrol police were nearby on Hero Square, but did not intervene despite the fracas.
Fifty-four-year-old Temur Radiani and his 25-year-old son, Shalva, have described being attacked by men in masks and severely beaten on April 14. They say they were returning from the demonstration at the public television building, when several jeeps caught up with them at the top of the Varazi Rise. According to Temur Radiani, the attack took place about 10 to 15 meters from a police patrol, who did not intervene. He told Human Rights Watch:
When we saw several jeeps driving fast towards us we ran away. A white jeep caught up with me and about four or five men jumped out. They wore medical masks and only their eyes were visible. They were armed with rubber truncheons. They started beating me. They hit me on the head several times. I fell down and they continued to beat me. My entire body was covered in bruises. They [the assailants] fled in a minute or so. My son tried to run away. Another car caught up to my son and several men mercilessly beat him. When I saw him, I could hardly recognize him as his nose was broken and bleeding, his face swollen.
Shalva Radiani was diagnosed with a concussion and had to spend two weeks in bed under a doctor's supervision. Temur Radiani sustained an injury to his right ear and multiple bruises on his face, back, right hand and arm.
Police investigators took statements from Temur and Shalva Radiani at the Republican Hospital. Temur Radiani was questioned again the next day at a police station.
Human Rights Watch has viewed a CCTV video recording of an attack on Vakhtang Lagidze, as he was driving home from one of the protests on April 14. The attack took place near the World Bank's Tbilisi office. The footage shows Lagidze's Land Cruiser being followed by white Nissan Jeep, which overtakes and then blocks Lagidze's vehicle. A few seconds later, another white jeep can be seen stopping behind Lagidze's vehicle. Shortly thereafter two additional cars arrive; several men jump out of the car-at least two faces are clearly identifiable-run towards Lagidze's car, drag him out of the driver's seat, beat him, and then leave him lying on the road. In less than a minute the assailants can be seen driving away in their cars and Lagidze's jeep.
The CCTV video was aired on Georgian television together with interviews with Lagidze about the attack. Human Rights Watch has on file a copy of the CCTV recordings.
On April 16, at around 3 a.m., 34-year-old Shalva Saghatashvili, a member of the opposition movement National Forum, took a cab home from the protest at Rustaveli Avenue. He has described how, about three hundred meters before he reaching home, the cab was stopped by two cars, blocking the way from the front and side. About eight men in medical masks dragged Saghatashvili out of the cab and beat him for several minutes. He told Human Rights Watch:
They surrounded me and started beating. They used wooden and rubber truncheons. I fell down and they continued to assault me. They were beating me everywhere.
After a few minutes the assailants fled. Saghatashvili had difficulty walking but managed to get to his apartment and then went to the hospital. He sustained a broken arm, finger, and rib. A police investigator took testimony from him that same day.
We urge you to take immediate steps to conduct comprehensive investigations into all allegations of attacks against peaceful demonstrators. Such investigations should be conclusive, public, involve the participation of the victims, and lead to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators. Accountability for these assaults is essential to demonstrate the government's commitment to justice, and prevent any attempts to attack freedom of assembly. Finding and prosecuting the perpetrators would demonstrate that the authorities are not condoning or tolerating such violence.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and we look forward to continued engagement with the Georgian government.
Europe and Central Asia division