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'Rubber Bullets And Beatings': Victims, Eyewitnesses Talk Of Violence Against Georgian Protesters

Riot police attack an opposition protester near the parliament building in Tbilisi on May 1.
Riot police attack an opposition protester near the parliament building in Tbilisi on May 1.

TBILISI -- Rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, beatings, and other tools of repression.

Protesters, journalists, and others, including opposition politicians, at mass demonstrations in Tbilisi over a controversial "foreign agent" bill have either suffered their effects or testified to witnessing them firsthand in the past three days.

Authorities in Georgia have defended their use of crowd-suppression tactics they said were justified or, in the case of rubber bullets, denied their use despite documented wounds and spent shells at the scene seemingly consistent with their use.

In fact, the official statements in some cases are contradicted by multiple videos captured by RFE/RL or on social media as well accounts to RFE/RL's Georgian Service by alleged victims and witnesses -- including reporters -- at rallies in Tbilisi on May 1 and 2.

Victims, Witnesses Describe 'Premeditated' Attack On Georgian Protesters
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Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze said early on May 2 that "no rubber bullets" were used by law enforcement, "although there were sufficient legal reasons for their use." The country's Special Investigation Service is said to be looking into whether excessive force was used against the demonstrators.

But several people spoke of injuries they received on May 1 as a result of being hit by rubber bullets, with some displaying their wounds. Reports have also alleged that not only police and special forces attacked protesters but unidentified masked individuals, as well.

Injured Reporter Says Georgian Police Used Rubber Bullets Against Protesters
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Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Tbilisi for more than two weeks now to protest the so-called "foreign agents" legislation introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

The United States, Britain, and the European Union, which granted Georgia candidate status in December, have criticized the bill and suggested it could halt Georgia's progress toward EU integration. If adopted, it would require organizations and groups to register as "agents of foreign influence" if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

Georgian Dream and its allies appear to have the votes to override a promised veto by President Salome Zurabishvili if it passes in a third reading as expected on May 17.

Critics say the bill is similar to legislation in Russia. Russia's "foreign agent" law, introduced in 2012, first targeted NGOs and rights groups before its scope was expanded to include media organizations, individual journalists, YouTube vloggers, and others who receive money from outside Russia.

As crowds in Tbilisi swelled in size and police tactics sharpened, UN human rights chief Volker Turk voiced concern about Georgian authorities' treatment of protesters. "I am concerned by reports of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement personnel against demonstrators and media workers in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, this week," he said.

Shot In The Eye

Nika Demurishvili, 24, was taken by ambulance to the hospital after suffering a wound around his right eye during the May 1 rally in the Georgian capital.

"His vision has not been damaged, but there was severe bruising. The whole picture [of the extent of the injury] wasn't clear from the ultrasound. During his checkup, then we will see exactly how bad it is…. His eyebrow was also cut and required eight stitches," his wife, Mari Jokhadze, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

Nika Demurishvili, 24, suffered a wound around his right eye during the May 1 rally in the Georgian capital.
Nika Demurishvili, 24, suffered a wound around his right eye during the May 1 rally in the Georgian capital.

Jokhadze said her husband believes he was hit by a rubber bullet, the impact of which threw him back into the crowd behind him.

Demurishvili was likely spared more serious injury thanks to the glasses he was wearing. "At least these glasses protected him. If not, the bullet would have gone straight into his eye," Jokhadze said, adding that her husband was hit while trying to help others clear out when police fired tear gas.

Jokhadze learned of her husband's injury at 11:15 p.m. on live TV coverage of the demonstration. Against the advice of doctors, Demurishvili requested to leave the hospital and was released on May 2.

Tsotne Koberdize, one of the leaders of Girchi-More Freedom, an opposition group, says he was struck by rubber bullets in the arm and torso at the same rally.

"I didn't understand how it happened; how two [rubber bullets] hit me at the same time. I was bleeding," Koberidze told RFE/RL, adding that a doctor who quickly treated him extricated a "small rubber ball" from the wound on his arm. His request to keep the object as a "souvenir" was denied by those treating him, Koberidze said.

Tsotne Koberidze said he was hit with two rubber bullets at the same time on May 1.
Tsotne Koberidze said he was hit with two rubber bullets at the same time on May 1.

Koberidze says the objects struck him when he was at a side entrance to the parliament building on Chitadze Street. He says he decided to head there after getting word that security forces were using tear gas against protesters, hoping to help anyone in need of assistance.

"Rubber bullets are really dangerous, especially if they hit you in the eye. I was relieved that didn't happen to me," Koberidze said.

Rights groups have warned in recent years of increased use by authorities of rubber bullets, and their use by Georgian police in 2019 stoked public anger in the midst of skyrocketing political tensions.

But despite official denials this month, video and testimony -- including that gathered by RFE/RL's Georgian Service -- contradicts that assertion.

Konstantine Chakhunashvili showed marks on his hand and foot that he says were caused by rubber bullets in Tbilisi late on May 1. "I was standing on April 9 Street and shining a laser," Chakhunashvili recounted, referring to a street nearby the parliament building.

Like others, he alleged that security forces started firing rubber bullets after tear gas had been used against protesters, escalating tensions in the standoff.

"I heard the sound of a shot, and when I saw blood trickling from my hand I realized that I had been hit by a bullet. As I was walking, I soon felt my leg hurt. I then noticed my pants were torn and I saw the wound on my leg," Chakhunashvili told RFE/RL.

Konstantine Chakhunashvili shows the wounds he says were caused by rubber bullets.
Konstantine Chakhunashvili shows the wounds he says were caused by rubber bullets.

Chakhunashvili says he finds it hard to believe the Georgian authorities deny using rubber bullets. "The rubber bullets were seen by many people" at the rally on May 1, he said. "I am a journalist!"

Not only those taking part, but others covering the demonstrations have also reported being targeted by Georgian security forces.

Robi Zaridze, a journalist working for iFact, a Georgian news outlet, says he was beaten at around 4 a.m. on May 1 by what he described as special forces following several raids on the rally. Zaridze says one of what he called "robocops" -- a term protesters have given to the security forces in riot gear -- quickly grabbed him by the hand and dragged him into the middle of a group of law enforcement colleagues.

At this point, Zaridze alleges, they beat him on the legs and hands while hurling abusive language at him. His screams that he was a journalist did not stop them, Zaridze says. "After the beating, one of them lifted me up. I asked the same: 'Why? For what? I didn't do anything wrong,' I said," Zaridze recounted to RFE/RL.

Robi Zaridze at a rally in Tbilisi on May 1
Robi Zaridze at a rally in Tbilisi on May 1

After the alleged beating, which Zaridze says left him with injuries to the head and a torn lip, security forces changed their minds about releasing him. "Let's arrest him. I'll make his mother cry too," Zaridze said one of the officers boasted.

His hands cuffed, Zaridze says he was thrown into a police van with "at least seven people." He managed to call a fellow journalist before his smartphone was seized and smashed by police, Zaridze says. This call, the journalist says, ultimately led to his release from the van.

Before that, Zaridze says his attempts inside the van to display his press credentials did not seem to register with the riot police inside the vehicle. "They wanted to hand me over to a patrol, but there was no patrol in that area," Zaridze told RFE/RL. Eventually he was released near a church not far from parliament.

As he made his way down the streets, he serendipitously came upon an ambulance. "They cleaned my blood, treated my wound, wrote down my name, surname, and age, and let me go," he said, adding that he planned to file a complaint with the police demanding an investigation into his treatment. Zaridze says he still feels the impact of the beating.

Media Ombudsman, a Georgian media watchdog NGO, has claimed Georgian security forces targeted media covering the protests, saying that between April 28 and May 1 10 journalists were targeted, including Zaridze. It urged the authorities to quickly investigate.

Ex-Soldier Beaten, Then Arrested

Gia Kikacheishvili, a 60-year-old former soldier with battle experience defending Georgia, was arrested on Rustaveli Avenue, the central boulevard in Tbilisi, just after midnight on May 1. He was sent to a detention center as his family searched in vain for him all night. Before his arrest, Kikacheishvili says he was physically assaulted by a group of special forces.

Security forces dragged Kikacheishvili away from a group of protesters and questioned him aggressively about what he was doing with them in an expletive-filled interrogation, says Mariam Pataridze, a lawyer with the Social Justice Center who is representing Kikacheishvili.

"There are injuries to his face, his nose is swollen, his eye is bruised. He also has bruises over his body -- in the areas of his shoulders and arms. He also has scratches on his hands," Pataridze said. Her client, she said, was charged with "blocking the road," a charge she says is preposterous.

Before his arrest, Gia Kikacheishvili says he was physically assaulted by a group of special forces.
Before his arrest, Gia Kikacheishvili says he was physically assaulted by a group of special forces.

Gia Kikacheishvili's son, journalist Tamar Kikacheishvili, who now lives abroad, told RFE/RL that on the morning of May 1 his Facebook account appeared to have been hacked in what he believes may have been related somehow to his father's arrests.

Tamar Kikacheishvili has also been active in efforts to derail the "foreign agents" bill, including taking part in demonstrations in Belgium in 2023 against the first effort to pass a slightly different version of the current bill.

'Couldn't Breathe'

Mariam Zedginidze, 20, says she evaded trouble for hours at the rally on April 30, when security forces were reported to have used water cannons, tear gas, and chemical spray on protesters. She witnessed a protester tearing up and struggling for breath after a cannister with tear gas landed nearby.

Mariam Zedginidze at the May 1 rally
Mariam Zedginidze at the May 1 rally

"I was with my friend at the rally. By about 2 a.m., it was very peaceful and quiet. Suddenly people started running away. I was shocked; I didn't understand what was happening. I ran too, but tears were welling up in my eyes so much that I couldn't open my eyes and I couldn't breathe anymore," Zedginidze told RFE/RL.

As she struggled to breathe, a friend handed her a gas mask. "I tried to put it on my face, but it was too late," Zedginidze said, adding that she was pulled away by fellow protesters and given first aid at a nearby building used by demonstrators.

Opposition Politicians Not Spared

Levan Khabeishvili, chairman of the opposition United National Movement party, appeared to show signs of a severe beating after a demonstration on April 30. Despite his injuries, including bruises to the face, Khabeishvili turned up in parliament on May 1 when the bill was being debated and voted on.

"I feel no pain: The head will heal, the eye will heal, and the body will heal. It will go. The struggle against the Putinists must continue," he said in a jab at Georgian Dream's motives and perceived sympathies for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He wasn't the only opposition politician injured at the April 30 rally. Aleksandre Elisashvili, leader of the opposition Citizens party, also alleged that he was physically assaulted by law enforcement officers -- the second time he had been attacked in recent days.

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