Also posted on Global Voices
More than dozen veterans of Georgia’s wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia began a hunger strike on December 27 demanding that the government address their social problems and restore their medical discounts. Camping out in front of a monument to fallen soldiers on Tbilisi’s Heroes Square, the ex-soldiers said that they would anyway leave on 6 January, the date of the Georgian Orthodox Christmas Eve.
Tamada Tales, a EurasiaNet blog, outlined their demands.
Demanding state benefits and a change in the government’s allegedly “undignified” attitude toward them, a handful of veterans of the 1990s separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had camped out for over a week at a war memorial to fallen soldiers at downtown Tbilisi’s Heroes Square. Their state perks are essentially limited to a monthly utilities allowance that amounts to about $12 and a free public transportation pass.
However, on 3 January, dozens of police officers broke up the strike just hours after protesters allege the presidential escort passed them by. Without proper warning, some veterans were arrested and excessive force was used. In particular, an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) punched Eka Matiashvili, an opposition party activist who was there to lend her support to the protesters.
Although Georgian TV had aired footage of a protest from Moscow the same day, there was little to no coverage of the Tbilisi incident. And with no official acknowledgement from the government, parliament members said that they didn’t even know it had occurred. Instead, images were spread immediately online with videos were uploaded to Youtube and shared on Facebook. Many were outraged.
The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, condemned the use of excessive force by police, andFacebook user Arachveulebrivi Gamofena (Unusual Exhibition) posted screenshots from the video. The images were re-shared by many who wanted to identify the policemen responsible for the violent acts during the dispersal.
After sharing on Facebook, the person responsible for hitting Matiashvili was identified as 26-year-old Otar Gvenetadze. It was only then that Interior Ministry released an official statement [GE] regarding the break up. According to MIA’s website, Gvenetadze was then relieved of his duties for violating the police’s own ethical code.
However, Gvenetadze was not the only one who was responsible for attacking protesters, but no others were mentioned in the official statement. Through a Facebook page, Amoicani Mishas JALATEBI !!![GE] (Identify Misha’s Executioners), users are now trying to identify them.
The topic, along with a poll, was opened on forum.ge [GE], the largest in Georgia, where one user posted excerpts from Georgian Constitution illustrating which articles had been violated by the police. Out of 229 votes, 192 supported one opinion expressed and demanded that the MIA investigate the case.
ყოველივე ზემოაღნიშნულიდან გამომდინარე, მოვითხოვ დაიწყოს სისხლისამართლებრივი დევნა პოლიციის იმ თანამშრომლების მიმართ, ვინც მონაწილეობდა ამ დანაშაულში [..] და დაისაჯოს უკლებლივ ყველა, კონსტიტუციით აღიარებული ნორმების ფეხქვეშ გათელვის გამო, [..] ან გამოდით და თქვით, რომ თქვენი ხელდასმით მოხდა ეს ყველაფერი და ბიჭებს საშობაო პრემიები ჩამოურიგეთ.
The InterPressNews online news agency also created a poll and, out of 1495 people, 84.3% supported the view that police should not have broken up the demonstration. Other polls also indicated that many people believed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili should apologize to the veterans.
Meanwhile, with 457,680 Facebook users in the country, and the largest penetration for the social networking site in the region, many considered that the campaign to identify those responsible for the violence was a significant development and step forward for online media.