Georgia condemned after police crackdown on protesters

Masked riot police violently rushed the peaceful rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)
Masked riot police violently rushed the peaceful rally, using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon (Giorgi ARJEVANIDZE)

The European Union led condemnation against Georgia on Wednesday after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at thousands of demonstrators protesting against a controversial "foreign influence" bill.

The clashes were the most violent yet in three weeks of rallies against the planned law -- which critics say is modelled on Russian legislation used to stifle dissent and the EU says undermines Georgian ambitions to join the European Union.

Several people, including opposition politicians, reported being beaten by riot police at the latest rally which went into the early hours of Wednesday. The interior ministry said 63 people were arrested.

The turmoil came ahead of parliamentary elections in October, seen as a test of democracy in Georgia, three decades after it gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I strongly condemn the violence against protesters in Georgia who were peacefully demonstrating against the law on foreign influence," said EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

"Georgia is an EU candidate country, I call on its authorities to ensure the right to peaceful assembly. Use of force to suppress it is unacceptable," he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

- 'Cruelly beaten' -

An AFP reporter saw masked riot police violently rush the peaceful rally which started Tuesday evening.

They fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, beating and arresting scores of people.

Several journalists were attacked, including an AFP photographer, wearing clear press identification, who was beaten with a rubber baton.

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

He appeared in parliament on Wednesday with a swollen face and a bandage across his nose and hand.

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

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

President Salome Zurabishvili -- who is at loggerheads with the ruling party -- also condemned the police crackdown and called on police to stop "the use of disproportionate force, the violence against barehanded youth."

The country's rights ombudsman called for an investigation into the use of "disproportionate force" against protesters and journalists.

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

The interior ministry said 63 demonstrators were arrested for "disobeying police and petty hooliganism."

It said police used "legitimate force" only after the protest had "turned violent and demonstrators entered in a verbal and physical confrontation with law enforcement."

Protestors are expected to gather again on Wednesday night.

But opponents of the bill and the ruling Georgian Dream party have pledged not to back down.

- 'Russian law' -

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

The bill, currently in its second reading, needs to pass three votes in parliament.

Zurabishvili is expected to veto the measure, but the ruling party has enough votes to override it.

If adopted, the law would require that 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".

Last year, mass street protests forced Georgian Dream to drop plans for similar measures.

In a rare public appearance this week, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili -- the ruling party chairman who is widely believed to the main power in Georgia -- said the measure aimed to increase the transparency of foreign funding for civil groups.

"Non-transparent funding of NGOs is the main instrument for the appointment of a Georgian government from abroad," he told government supporters.

Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but Georgian Dream 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.