Anti-Gay Riot in Georgian Capital
An attempt to hold a march against homophobia in the Georgian Tbilisi ended in rioting as hostile protesters attacked participants and police lines crumbled.
Dozens of people were injured, including journalists and police officers trying to escort people away from the trouble.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili condemned the May 17 violence, saying, “The right to gather peacefully and to freely express one's opinion is fundamental to our democracy.“
Opponents of the march against homophobia were already gathering on the capital’s central Rustaveli Avenue the previous day, and they numbered several thousand by the time it was due to begin.
Police cordoned off a section of Freedom Square for the few dozen people who were still determined to take part. But when they were due to begin, an aggressive crowd surged towards the square, and police evacuated most of the anti-homophobia marchers on buses before their opponents could reach them.
Accompanied by Orthodox priests, and armed with stones, poles and other weapons, the protesters attacked a minibus containing some of the participants, smashing windows and pelting those inside with stones.
Flushed with victory, some took control of the square to celebrate, while others fanned out into the city.
The anti-gay protesters had been spurred on by a statement issued by the head of the Georgian Orthodox church, Patriarch Ilia II, who compared homosexuality to a disease and called on the city mayor to ban the march.
In response, the city authorities pointed out that demonstrations do not require prior permission, and that organisers merely have to inform officials of their plans.
In an earlier press briefing, Ivanishvili had promised protection for the anti-homophobia march, whatever others thought of it.
“There are people who can’t accept this, but we will do everything to protect the rights of any minority. That is what is going to happen in this case,” he said.
Afterwards, he said that the perpetrators of violence would be dealt with, and defended the action taken by the police. He said more than 2,000 police had been deployed to prevent trouble, but they were “overwhelmed” by several thousand anti-gay demonstrators.
His government nevertheless faced accusations of failing to ensure an adequate police response.
“Some Georgian citizens were not given a chance to exercise their constitutional rights. The state was unable to create conditions for holding the action or to prevent violence,” Georgia’s human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili said when he arrived on the scene of the clashes.
Aleko Tskitishvili, director of the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi, said most people had assumed the anti-homophobia march would go off peacefully after the prime minister’s pledge to protect participants.
“There were calm and clear statements that the government would maintain order. But sadly, a tragedy occurred and people suffered,” he said, adding that eyewitness accounts suggested that the police did have the resources needed to stop the riot.
“I believe questions must be raised about the responsibility of the interior minister and the police officers who were in charge,” Tskitishvili added.
Other rights groups and opposition groups agreed that both government and police had been discredited by their failure to maintain control.
“We need a state that is ready to respond to aggression,” Chiora Taktakishvili, a member of parliament from the opposition United National Movement, said.
More generally, the ugly scenes in Tbilisi left many Georgians fearing an upsurge in religious intolerance, and saddened that their country’s reputation had been dented.
“It’s very hard to watch members of the priesthood taking part and unashamedly allowing children to take part in their violence,” opposition politician Taktakishvili said.
Tskitishvili, from the Human Rights Centre, said, “Sadly, because of what has happened the government’s reputation has been seriously damaged and, what’s worse, the reputation of the whole country has, too.
“All those who are to blame for this tragedy must be identified and punished. Neither the priest’s cassock, nor the king’s crown nor the presidential chair should guarantee impunity.”
Tina Zhvania is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.