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Georgian Officials Accused of ‘Whitewashing’ State Violence With Trip to London

The UK Government is being urged to take action against Georgia as the US on Thursday announced sanctions against a “few dozen” Georgian Dream officials

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party, pictured in April 2024. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream party, pictured in April 2024. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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A top Georgian official recently met with UK authorities as her agency fends off allegations of failing to adequately investigate the mounting violent crackdown on opposition voices in the South Caucasian country. 

Photos posted to Facebook on May 28 show Natuti Pirashvili, Head of International Relations at Georgia’s Special Investigation Service (SIS), standing in the lobby of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and meeting with an official at the National Crime Agency in London. An IOPC spokesperson said the watchdog did not meet with Pirashvili or have knowledge of her visit.

Other images uploaded last week indicate Pirashvili was accompanied on her trip by Kate Tetrauli, another SIS investigator, and feature Pirashvili posing at Westminster Bridge, Tower Bridge, Abbey Road and the Natural History Museum. On Friday morning, only the tourist images were still visible on her public profile.

EXCLUSIVE

UK Government Accused of Allowing Georgia’s ‘Pro-Russian’ Drift After Foreign Influence Law Passed

The Conservatives said they had no idea a UK-backed Georgian communications unit was using trolls to attack opponents and spread anti-Western disinformation. A source claims the former Foreign Secretary was informed last March

On May 31, the same day the last of these photos was posted, a mob of roughly 30 to 40 masked men vandalised the headquarters of Georgia’s largest opposition party, United National Movement. Offices of government-critical NGOs and independent media outlets were similarly targeted, while others received threatening anonymous phone calls.

Recent weeks have seen such attacks become the new normal in Georgia, where dozens of activists, journalists, NGO workers and opposition politicians have been hospitalised in beatings by state security personnel for their opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream party’s new law on ‘foreign influence’ which was passed on 28 May.

The measures, decried by critics as an analogue of tactics used by the Putin regime to crush opposition to the war in Ukraine, represent the latest episode in Georgia’s ongoing authoritarian slide away from its historic partners in the West. 

Both the US and the EU have threatened sanctions and a freeze to government assistance in response to the law’s passing, with the EU adding that the measures spell an end to Georgia’s present hopes of one day joining the bloc – which enjoys support from the overwhelming majority of the public. On Thursday, the US said it had imposed travel bans on a “few dozen” Georgian Dream officials. According to a report in the Financial Times late last month, Estonia, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Sweden were among the countries considering restrictive measures against Georgia.

BREAKING

Georgian Dream Pass ‘Foreign Influence’ law ‘Completing its Seizure of Power’ After Weeks of Violent Protests

For several weeks, Tbilisi has been rocked by violent crackdowns on protesters opposed to a Kremlin-style bill targeting journalists and civil society. Today it passed into law

Though David Cameron has condemned the measures, the UK government has not publicly announced any intention to join the US and EU in taking concrete action over the law.

Byline Times earlier reported how the Foreign Office appears to have for years repeatedly ignored warning signs that a UK-backed Georgian comms unit was using troll accounts to attack state critics and spread anti-Western disinformation

As a head of the SIS, it is the remit of Pirashvili’s agency to investigate allegations of misconduct levelled against state officials. The body appears to receive significant international support, having been admitted to Europol’s Internal Criminal Investigations Network last year as well as presently benefiting from a Council of Europe programme entitled ‘Enhancing Human Rights Compliant Approaches in Law Enforcement Institutions in Georgia’.

But to date, critics say that credible steps against those responsible for the beatings, menacing phone calls, acts of vandalism and online attacks against those opposed to Georgia’s ‘foreign influence’ law have roundly failed to materialise. 

The ruling party, under whom Pirashvili’s husband Givi Mikanadze presently serves as MP, have publicly thrown themselves behind the ongoing campaign of state terror.

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Georgian Dream’s ‘Russian-style’ law has prompted strong statements of concern from the UK, US and EU with critics saying it is an attempt to muzzle the media and NGOs – it may also end Georgia’s hopes of joining the EU

Dito Samkharadze, another Georgian Dream parliamentary representative, this week posted a video to Facebook of masked men vandalising an NGO office wall with the caption: “We know your identities one by one, your patrons cannot save you if you do something bad to any member of the Georgian Dream team!” 

His statement also included a list of further targets, including NGOs like Tbilisi Pride and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, as well as virtually every one of the country’s pro-Western political parties.

Human rights lawyers claim the SIS faces significant obstacles in investigating and prosecuting rapidly mounting allegations of what appears to be a coordinated campaign of intimidation against protesters and civil society.

One lawyer currently providing legal assistance to those who’ve been beaten and detained at the protests in recent weeks, says the problem is chiefly that assailants have not worn otherwise mandatory ID numbers, making it all but impossible to identify the individuals responsible for carrying out the attacks.

“Despite the lawful and peaceful nature of the protests, police have been using disproportionate force and problematic administrative detention against demonstrators,” the lawyer told Byline Times. “The courts have also imposed substantial fines and applied administrative imprisonment without proper justification or evidence, suggesting a deliberate chilling effect in order to weaken the protest movement.”

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Victims say that the problem goes deeper still, with the SIS showing little to no interest in actually pursuing their cases. “My wife lodged a complaint the day it happened, but since then I’ve had absolutely no contact from them at all,” says David Katsarava, an opposition activist who underwent emergency surgery to have part of his skull replaced after he was beaten at a demonstration on May 14. “I don’t expect to hear from them either, I think they’re just hoping we will give up and go away.”

The SIS did not respond to a request for comment. The UK National Crime Agency declined to clarify the reasons for Pirashvili’s recent trip to London.

But for representatives of Georgia’s increasingly besieged civil society, the apparent purpose of her visit was clear. 

“The SIS has not only failed to investigate any of the numerous violent crimes against protesters but in effect has served as a whitewashing mechanism, a kind of window dressing,” says Giorgi Kandelaki, a representative of SovLab, one of the NGOs targeted by the recent legislation. “This trip shows that decision-makers in London need to be urgently conducting a policy review on Georgia, and to start sanctioning the officials responsible for pushing Georgia into the Kremlin’s clutches.”


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