Thousands of Protestors Disrupt Rally against Homophobia

Submitted by ILGA-Europe

Reposted from teh Georgian Times:

A parade marking the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia - due to be held in Tbilisi was abandoned before it started when several thousand anti-gay activists, including Georgian Orthodox Church priests, took control of the street where the rally was to take place. After achieving their initial objective of preventing the parade, the protestors broke through police barricades and pursued the people intending to join the rally, who had to be evacuated by Special Forces. At least 28 people were injured.

Gay rights activists were planning to gather outside the former parliament building on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue at 1 pm on May 17 to mark the International Day against Homophobia. This would have been only the second such rally in Georgia.

But they soon had to change their plans when thousands of anti-gay Christian activists led by Orthodox priests, arrived carrying bunches of stinging nettles which they threatened to use on the gay activists. Some held placards reading, "We don't need Sodom and Gomorrah", "We should protect our children", "Stop Homosexual Propaganda in Georgia", etc.
Father Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest who was one of the main organizers of the protest, said that the anti-homophobia parade "insults people's traditions and national sentiments."

"Our main goal is to protect the Orthodox Church and fight against gays," Mkalavishvili told the Georgian Times, adding that this was "the beginning of a nettle revolution."

A day earlier, on May 16, the influential head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, had called on the authorities via a written statement to ban the planned gay rights rally, denouncing it as an "encouragement" of "anomaly and disease." However, the authorities gave the green light for the gay parade to take place. Three days earlier, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili had said that sexual minorities were equal citizens of Georgia and that society would "gradually get used to it".

Ivanishvili had pledged to ensure the safety of the participants of the planned rally. In order to prevent any possible incidents a cordon of upwards of 2,000 policemen blocked off Rustaveli Avenue and other streets adjoining Tbilisi's central Freedom Square, which had been designated as the alternative venue for the rally. But the situation grew tense when news of the change of venue spread and anti-gay protesters, led by Orthodox priests, started moving towards Freedom Square. Only a few minutes after the parade had been expected to begin, tension boiled over and the crowd charged through the police barricades separating the two sides and swarmed into Freedom Square. The agitated crowd then engaged in a violent pursuit, beating and throwing stones at all the people thought to be supporting the rally.

Police were forced to bus approximately 30 gay activists out of the city centre to avoid further violence. However, these buses were also attacked and their windows smashed by the protestors; aggressive young men, and some priests, started chasing buses they thought were carrying participants of the anti-homophobia rally. "Kill these whores," one man shouted. Several people, including a journalist and some policemen, sustained injuries.

"Those demonstrators were shouting at us and using bad language. They wanted to break the windows or the door and get inside; they would not allow the bus to move," said Tamta Melashvili, one of the protesters. "In the end, one of the priests saved us; otherwise I do not know what would have happened."

A few hours after the first clashes, further incidents took place near Kashveti Church, Tabukashvili Street and other places adjoining Rustaveli Avenue. Not far from Freedom Square a van reportedly carrying gay rights activists was surrounded by a large group of people, some of whom threw stones and other objects.

Near the Philharmonic Hall, which is more than a kilometer from the original hotspot, a young man and woman thought by the anti-gay protesters to be affiliated with the gay rights activists, were assaulted and obliged to seek shelter in a nearby Populi supermarket. Policemen had to be deployed to prevent a large group of people storming the place. When Georgia's Public Defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, arrived on the scene he was verbally confronted by anti-gay protesters and police had to intervene to escort him from the area. There was also an attempt to raid the offices of Identoba, a non-governmental organization which defends gay rights and was one of the organizers of the anti-homophobia rally.

The number of anti-gay protesters began to dwindle when one senior Orthodox cleric called on them to move on to Holy Trinity Cathedral for prayer. Later that day Patriarch Ilia II then called for calm in a televised address, but also reiterated that the gay rights rally amounted to propaganda for homosexuality, which was unacceptable.

A group of six civil society and watchdog organizations (the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, Transparency International Georgia, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, the Georgian Democracy Initiative, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre and Article 42 of the Constitution) later released a joint statement saying that the police had failed to take appropriate measures to prevent the violence.

"The impression was that the Interior Ministry was more focused on safely evacuating [anti-homophobia rally] participants from the scene than protecting the rally itself. The police did not make enough effort to provide security for the participants during the actual rally," their statement reads.

The Public Defender also issued a statement, which read that "It's a regrettable paradox that the International Day against Homophobia has become a day of expressing homophobia in Georgia."

"Despite the MIA having been informed several days before that two protests would be held in the same location, and also about the expected threats, representatives of the LGBT community and their supporting organizations were prevented from exercising the right to freedom of assembly granted to them by the constitution. Despite mobilization of the patrol police cordon, the police failed to sustain it," he continued. Nanuashvili described the day's events as "deplorable" and added that it was obvious from all the footage that the anti-gay protestors, including the ecclesiastics, had behaved aggressively from the very beginning by running after the protesters. "Their aim was not to peacefully protest, but to physically abuse the protesters; there were cases of extremism and hatred," his statement reads.

A similar rally in Tbilisi last year, albeit at on a much smaller scale, was also short-lived and likewise ended with a scuffle.

Comments on May 17 events

Bidzina Ivanishvili, Prime Minister of Georgia, condemned the violence against the rally participants and vowed that the perpetrators "will be dealt with according to the law".

"The right to gather peacefully and freely express one's opinion is fundamental to our democracy. Every Georgian citizen benefits fully and equally from this right. Acts of violence, discrimination and restriction of the rights of others will not be tolerated, and any perpetrators of such acts will be dealt with according to the law," the PM's statement reads.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili commented that the government must not allow violence. "I am deeply concerned about the violence in the centre of Tbilisi. No matter what the motives of the violence were, this cannot be the face of Georgian society. I don't agree that today's violence was the result of police activity, that it was their fault. This is about political responsibility," the President stated. "The government must not just reject what is happening, it must not allow violence to take root in society and not allow it to spread by granting obscure amnesties, as it did when it let criminals out of prison for political motives," he continued.

The EU Ambassador to Georgia was dismayed by the violence. "Freedom of expression is a basic human right, which should be available to all. Naturally I am disappointed that this right of expression was violently blocked today by counter demonstrators," declared Philip Dimitrov. He added that the people who blocked the streets evidently do not understand that no one is demanding that they either like or adopt one type of sexual behavior or another.

"According to the present standards of civilization it is normal to allow anyone to express the way they are. What is not normal is violence and brutality against people who feel differently to yourself," commented Dimitrov, emphasizing that "Georgia has committed itself to these standards and this understanding of normalcy and it is a shame to be unable to meet these commitments."

An Interior Ministry spokesperson later said that an investigation into the disturbances was ongoing and an unspecified number of proceedings under both the criminal and civil codes were being initiated.

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