‘They came armed with stones’: Violent mob storms Tbilisi Pride offices
Georgia’s Pride march cancelled after protesters attacked activists, journalists and passers-by
LGBT rights activists cancelled Georgia’s Pride march on Monday after violence by mobs opposed to the parade led to widespread attacks on journalists, activists and innocent passers-by.
Protesters broke into the headquarters of Tbilisi Pride – the LGBT group organising the march – by scaling the outside walls, ripped up rainbow flags and ransacked the rooms, smashing computers, furniture and crockery.
“They came armed with stones, they were completely uncontrolled,” Tamas Sozashvili, co-founder of Tbilisi Pride, told Open Democracy, adding that he had managed to escape just before the protesters burst in.
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“The police did not do anything at all to stop them. I don’t think they were even there. They attacked innocent citizens,” he said. He described seeing two journalists assaulted, one of whom was taken to hospital.
Elene Khoshtaria, former member of the opposition party European Georgia, who recently founded her own political movement, criticised the police for being “totally absent or doing nothing while journalists and activists were beaten”. “The police were just escorting the mob,” Khoshtaria added.
At least 50 journalists were attacked in the country’s capital. A video posted online showed one journalist being dragged away while held in a headlock by men in religious clothing. A Polish tourist was also stabbed, allegedly because he was wearing an earring, and women and children were also attacked, local media reported.
Georgia’s interior ministry said that (at time of writing) they have arrested 11 people, documented 55 incidents of violence and launched an investigation into the use of an explosive device thrown at an NGO building.
Monday’s March for Dignity was planned as the final event of five days of LGBT+ Pride celebrations in Tbilisi. The whole event was already highly controversial, with the Georgian Orthodox Church saying that it “conflicts with socially recognised moral norms and aims to legalise grave sin”. Members of the Orthodox Church were also involved in Monday’s anti-Pride protests, with video footage showing one priest inciting the protestors outside parliament, telling them they are “obliged to resort to violence for the homeland”.
Just hours before the march was due to start, Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili issued a statement alleging – citing no proof – that the march was organised by a “radical opposition headed by [Mikheil] Saakashvili” (the leader-in-exile of the opposition party United National Movement) and aimed to “sow unrest”. “We will not let this [unrest] happen, everything will be in our country as our people want,” Garibashvili declared.
The statement was widely condemned, with the country’s public defender Nino Lomjaria accusing the prime minister of “escalating” the situation, leading to attacks on journalists.
Eka Chitanava from the Tolerance and Diversity Institute, a human rights NGO in Tbilisi, told openDemocracy that the prime minister’s statement “further legitimised the pogrom on activists by linking them to the political opposition. This is an extremely alarming development and a huge threat to Georgia’s democratic development.”
‘We don’t have any political power and we don’t have any rights to express ourselves. Our hands are chained’
The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said the violence is “a woeful illustration of the repeated threats LGBTI people face in Georgia". She added: “Authorities have human rights obligations to uphold free expression and assembly, ensure demonstrators and journalists’ safety and punish the perpetrators of attacks.”
“Make no mistake, this is not a victory of ultra-Right groups, but an utter failure of the state who condoned and tolerated the violence in Tbilisi streets today,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Anti-LGBT protesters in Georgia have behaved violently before, breaking up an anti-homophobic rally in Tbilisi in 2013. Green Movement NGO member and queer activist Tornike Kusiani said the events on Monday were worse than in 2013. “Back then, the government didn’t have this kind of official position about the queer community,” he said.
Kusiani said he himself had been injured in a homophobic attack in 2017, in the presence of police who, he said, did nothing. “On Monday, the same thing happened to others,” he added.
“I don’t really know if a Pride parade can work in Georgia in the near future. Unfortunately, we are massively marginalised in so many ways,” he said. “We don’t have any political power and we don’t have any rights to express ourselves. Our hands are chained. I don’t know how to continue fighting this.”
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