8 June 2011

Tear gas and rubber bullets fired at protesters, journalists

Ten thousand Georgians hit the streets on 21 May in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding that President Mikheil Saakashvili step down. But with protests showing no signs of abating, security forces dispersed hundreds of opposition demonstrators using water cannons and teargas on 26 May, beating and detaining many, report Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship. Several journalists were brutally targeted in the attack.

The initial protest on 21 May was led by former speaker of the parliament, Nino Burjanadze. By 25 May, hundreds were gathered in front of the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue. Their permit for the rally expired at midnight - and they were told by authorities to relocate to an alternative venue to clear the way for an Independence Day military parade the following morning.

But the protesters refused to move and just after midnight the police began their attack. Some stick-wielding protesters clashed with police. The police chased down demonstrators, kicking and beating them with truncheons. Four people died during the police operation while 37 were injured, say IFEX members.

"Even if the protesters broke the law and the use of force was thus justified, the journalists should not have been attacked and prevented from fulfilling their professional duties," writes Boyko Boev for Index.

According to Index, 17 journalists were assaulted. Beka Sivsivadze, from the independent newspaper, "Asaval-Dasavali", said, "I told them that we were the journalists but they beat us harder when they heard it."

Journalists' video cameras were seized or destroyed, their phones confiscated, reports RSF. Some had their press badges ripped off them by riot police. One journalist was hospitalised for inhaling tear gas. Others were detained for several hours. Another journalist spent the night in a police station. Journalist Diana Khoperia of "Obyektivi" newspaper needed several stitches to her head after being badly beaten.

"This use of force against reporters who were just covering events is intolerable. We urge both the authorities and the opposition to respect journalists, who must not be the collateral victims of the current political tension," said RSF.

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