Georgia Pro-EU Protesters Erect Barricades Outside Parliament After Crackdown

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Demonstrators have rallied against the bill for weeks

Pro-EU demonstrators in Georgia built barricades outside parliament on Wednesday after police used tear gas and rubber bullets against thousands of protesters rallying for a third week against a controversial “foreign influence” bill, an AFP reporter saw.

The Black Sea Caucasus nation has been gripped by mass anti-government protests since April 9, after the ruling Georgian Dream party reintroduced plans to pass a law, which Brussels has denounced as undermining Tbilisi’s EU aspirations.

On Tuesday evening, masked riot police violently rushed the peaceful rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, while beating and arresting scores of people protesting against the bill, which critics say resembles Russian legislation used to silence dissent.

Several journalists were attacked, including an AFP photographer who was beaten with a rubber baton, despite being clearly identified as a member of the press.

Lawmaker Levan Khabeishvili — the chairman of the main opposition United National Movement of jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili — was badly beaten and had to seek medical help.

Local TV stations aired footage showing his face disfigured with missing teeth.

Another Saakashvili ally, Sophia Japaridze, said she was “cruelly beaten by police.”

“I call on the interior minister to immediately stop the crackdown on the peaceful rally, the use of disproportionate force, the violence against barehanded youth,” Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili — who is at loggerheads with the ruling party — said in a statement.

The rally continued past midnight, with defiant protesters braving water cannon jets and tear gas.

Demonstrators blocked traffic outside parliament on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare and several other key transport arteries across the city.

In the early hours of Wednesday, protesters erected barricades outside parliament building after riot police left the area.

Georgia’s rights ombudsman, Levan Ioseliani, called for an investigation into the use of “disproportionate force” against protesters and journalists.

Interior ministry said police intervened with the protests only after it “turned violent and demonstrators entered in a verbal and physical confrontation with law enforcement.

Tuesday’s demonstration marked three weeks of daily youth-dominated rallies against the measure.

“They are scared because they see our resolve,” one of the protesters, 21-year-old Natia Gabisonia, told AFP. “We will not let them pass this Russian law and bury our European future.”

MPs were debating the draft law’s second reading on Tuesday, with the ruling party aiming to adopt it in mid-May.

The bill needs to pass three readings in parliament and a presidential signature to become law. Georgia’s president is widely expected to veto the measure, but the ruling party has enough seats to override the veto in parliament.

If adopted, the law would require any independent NGO and media organisation receiving more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as an “organisation pursuing the interests of a foreign power”.

EU chief Charles Michel has said the bill “is not consistent with Georgia’s bid for EU membership” and that it “will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer.”

On Monday, Georgian Dream bussed thousands of people to the capital for a counter rally held amid widespread reports that government employees were being forced to attend.

In a rare public appearance, powerful billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili — the ruling party chairman who is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia — addressed the crowd.

He defended the bill as aiming to boost transparency of the foreign funding of civil groups, saying that “non-transparent funding of NGOs is the main instrument for the appointment of a Georgian government from abroad”.

On Sunday, some 20,000 demonstrators staged a kilometre-long “March for Europe” in the capital Tbilisi.

Similar rallies were held across the country, including in Georgia’s second-largest city of Batumi and the main city of the western Imereti region, Kutaisi.

Last year, Georgian Dream was forced to drop the measure following mass street protests that saw police use tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators.

Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but the current ruling party has been accused of attempting to steer the former Soviet republic closer to Russia.

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarisation, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.

Georgia’s bid for membership of the EU and NATO is enshrined in its constitution and — according to opinion polls — supported by more than 80 percent of the population.

The Black Sea Caucasus nation has been gripped by mass anti-government protests since April 9
AFP
Masked riot police violently rushed the peaceful rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon
Masked riot police violently rushed the peaceful rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon
AFP
Protesters removed barriers near the Georgian parliament
Protesters removed barriers near the Georgian parliament
AFP
Riot police and protesters faced off in central Tbilisi
Riot police and protesters faced off in central Tbilisi
AFP

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