Georgia's Teenage Crime Scourge

The authorities lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 following a wave of adolescent violence.

Georgia's Teenage Crime Scourge

The authorities lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 following a wave of adolescent violence.

A piece of black drapery with two framed photos attached to it hangs at the entrance of Tbilisi’s School No. 43. One of the photos shows a girl with plaits and a playful smile, while a boy scowls out of the other one. A vase with fresh flowers stands next to the pictures, together with a number of letters spread out like a fan, one saying, “Salome and Nika, we will never forget you!”

The last ring of the school bell, usually a joyful event marking the beginning of summer holidays and celebrations for school leavers, was not heard in the school this year after these two pupils were murdered within a week of one another in May.

Fourteen-year-old Salome Mamatsashvili – the girl with the plaits in the photograph – was found dead in the doorway of a block of flats a short distance from her home on May 12. Her body bore multiple stab wounds. A suspect detained by police, David Tabidze, an 18-year-old living in the same block of flats as the Mamatsashvilis, has denied killing her.

The girl had gone out for a walk with her friends and never came back. The following morning, Salome’s mother identified her daughter’s body at the morgue.

Salome kept a diary and after her death, her mother learnt from the diary that Salome was in love with David.

Five days before this killing, 11th grader Nika Chankseliani, 17, was shot dead in a fight involving pupils from his and another schools. He died of eight gunshot wounds. A 14-year-old has been accused of killing Nika, who was due to leave school in a few days.

There is growing public anxiety about the rise in teenage violence in Georgia, and the topic eclipsed all others in news coverage in May.

The interior ministry reports that of the seven premeditated killings committed in May, five of the victims were minors.

Parliament responded to the surge in juvenile violence by making changes to the country’s criminal code to lower the age of responsibility from 14 to 12. This means a 12-year-old found guilty of committing a serious crime is liable to be punished as an adult.

The government says the changes will come into force as soon as appropriate conditions for young offenders are introduced in the prisons.

The move drew criticism from the international human rights group, Human Rights Watch. Its Europe and Central Asia director Holly Cartner said, “By lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, Georgia has gone against international and European standards. States are supposed to work to establish higher, not lower, ages of criminal responsibility.”

Parliament also plans to pass a “law against antisocial behaviour” in the near future, which will oblige school administrations and police to monitor teenagers deemed to be prone to violence. Under the draft law, parents whose children have committed a crime will have to pay a fine.

In April and May, Georgian television channels reported on a spate of violent crimes committed by and against teenagers.

On the evening of May 17, a 17-year-old schoolboy was killed in a shooting incident, while on May 7, a 14-year-old was stabbed to death in a school playground.

A few days before that, Revaz Pukhashvili was killed after he refused to lend his father’s car to another boy. On the same day, seventh-form student Enriko Janelidze was seriously wounded in a fight, but his life was saved by doctors.

On May 1, a group of around ten teenagers attacked Tbilisi resident Giorgi Aptsiauri, 20, and stabbed him several times.

On April 18, three tenth-graders killed a classmate with a knitting needle in the yard of their school in the Ozurgeti district of western Georgia. Two days before that, 15-year-old Grigory Martashenko was killed by 15 shots in the centre of Tbilisi. Earlier in the month, a 14-year-old shot one of his classmates and the head of the local hunting association.

Officials accept that there is a serious problem, but have also accused television reports of playing it up. “It’s unnecessary and wrong to dramatise the situation,” said education minister Alexander Lomaia.

Giorgi Bokeria, one of the leaders of the pro-government majority in parliament, cited “a syndrome of impunity that has been rooted in the country for years” as one of the causes of the recent adolescent violence.

“The state with its legitimate right to retribution, the family where the child grows up, the school he goes to – these are components that should be working together in solving this,” he said. “Adolescents should know that they won’t go unpunished.”

But parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze said the problem would not be solved by tightening up the law alone.

“A tough response alone won’t lead us to a real result,” she said. “First of all, we should discover the reasons why incidents like these happen and why they have become more frequent, and then we should start combating the causes, not the consequences.”

Psychologist Sophio Verulashvili also said it was wrong to blame the children.

“This is the generation whose childhood coincided with a difficult social and economic situation in Georgia, when their parents were either desperate and at home, or permanently absent,” she told IWPR.

“In actual fact, there was no one to bring up these children. When there was electricity in their homes, they got poor-quality information from television. Otherwise, they whiled away their time on the streets.

“No one was there to educate them, and the consequences of this are what we see today.”

Gia Murgulia, the headmaster of Tbilisi School No. 24, said parents and children were not communicating properly.

“Because of social problems, parents fail to pay proper attention to their children,” he said. “There’s no dialogue going on between parents and children. School plays an essential role, but, to my mind, family upbringing is of prime importance.”

In most of the recent cases cited above, the firearms used by the minors involved belonged to family members.

Knives are on sale everywhere in Tbilisi. There is a great variety on display in a stall in the underground passage right opposite School No 1, although the salesman told IWPR he never sold knives to minors.

“I am not familiar with the law, but I think it’s something that is regulated by a moral code – I would never sell a knife to a lad. But some other seller might,” he said.

Schoolchildren say carrying weapons has become fashionable.

“Many guys think that once they have a knife in their pocket and can fight, they’ll be more admired by the girls, and that they’ll become the coolest and most popular boys in their school,” said Mari, a girl aged 14.

“That may be true up to a point, but personally I don’t like boys like that.”

Nana Kurashvili is a correspondent for Imedi television in Tbilisi.

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