(New York) - Riot police in Georgian capital Tbilisi beat demonstrators while trying to disperse a peaceful anti-government protest, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should launch an immediate, thorough, and impartial investigation into excessive and disproportionate use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 25, 2011, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered in front of the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi. The authorities warned protesters that they would break up the demonstration in order to make way for the planned Independence Day military parade on Rustaveli Avenue on May 26.
The protesters had a permit to hold a rally on May 25 that expired at midnight, and opposition leaders stated that they intended to stay put. Tbilisi's municipal authorities offered the protesters another rally venue, which they refused. At 12:15 a.m., 15 minutes after the rally permit expired, riot police moved on the demonstrators using water cannons and teargas to disperse them, beating and detaining many.
"Even if the Tbilisi demonstration was unauthorized, nothing can justify the beating of largely peaceful demonstrators," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Police responsible for beating protesters should be held to account."
Police pursued fleeing demonstrators, kicking and beating many, using rubber truncheons. In one case, they chased down demonstrators who had taken shelter in a nearby cinema, detaining them and kicking and beating many as they exited. One journalist who was briefly detained reported to local media that he had seen a large number of injured protesters at the Tbilisi main police station, some requiring medical assistance.
According to media reports, some protesters armed with long flag poles and makeshift shields clashed with riot police. Also, according to an official police statement, one policeman died after he was hit by a car fleeing the protest venue. The exact number of injured protesters is not yet known.
Protests in Tbilisi started on May 21, when about 10,000 opposition supporters demonstrated in central Tbilisi, led by former speaker of the parliament, Nino Burjanadze. Hundreds of protesters have held a continuous demonstration in front of the Public Broadcasting building since then, calling for President Mikheil Saakashvili to step down.
Georgia is a party to a number of human rights treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights which imposes obligations on the government to respect the right of freedom of assembly and to refrain in all circumstances from engaging in prohibited ill-treatment of protesters. The government also has a duty to investigate and remedy violations of those obligations.
"The government took a positive step in offering protesters an alternative venue tonight," said Denber. "But police should never have resorted to beating protesters who posed no threat."