Less than one month after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili pledged to step up democratic reforms, human and civil rights monitors state that a disturbing pattern of arrests, beatings and kidnappings involving opposition members and supporters has developed in Georgia over the past four months.
The Georgian Public Defender's Office, which monitors human rights practices, reports that it has documented 34 physical attacks against opposition party members and political activists and 15 arrests of such individuals since April, when opposition street protests began in Tbilisi. The demonstrations ended by late July.
Sophio Benashvili, head of the Public Defender's Office's Division for Freedom and Equality, said that while it is "very hard" to prove that an arrest is politically motivated, striking similarities in the 15 arrests have caused the Public Defender's Office to "suspect that something is not right" with the cases.
"Simply, the number of people who have been arrested and the motif of all the charges are identical -- either narcotics or firearms," Benashvili said. "The time period when they are arrested is a very short period, from April to June, and they are all members of the parties who were very active" in the protests.
"This circumstance gives us a reason to look into these incidents and cases," she continued.
A legal loophole facilitates prosecution of the charges, according to Tamar Khidasheli, the chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a non-government organization representing several of the arrested opposition supporters.
"[I]t is not necessary to have . . . eyewitnesses when the search or seizure is made by the police," Khidasheli, said. "So the police [are] usually using this and the only persons who are attending this process are the policemen."
Eka Beselia, a criminal defense lawyer and the secretary general of the Movement for a United Georgia, puts the number of arrests much higher than the Public Defender's Office -- over 70 arrests since the opposition started its protests on April 9, and over 200 attacks on activists and party members, she claims.
The interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili met with some opposition leaders on August 12 to discuss the charges; the opposition gave the government one week to provide "concrete answers" about the arrests. A second meeting is planned later this month to discuss the ministry's conclusions.
Irakli Alasania, leader of the Our Georgia-Free Democrats party and a participant in the discussion, called the meeting a good "first step" toward resolving the opposition's concerns.
Several other opposition leaders, however, including Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker and onetime ally of Saakashvili, refused to meet Merabisvhili.
"[T]here is no trust between us and the government and we can't trust the government because we know -- we don't think, we know -- that everything that is going on right now in Georgia -- these tendencies of kidnappings and beatings and political arrests -- this is directly coming from the government and from high-level officials, from the president personally, from the minister of internal affairs, from other high ranking officials," Burjanadze charged.
"So it is cynical to go and speak to the people who are organizers of all these illegal events," she continued.
Burjanadze's Democratic Movement -United Georgia has released a graphic photo that shows wounds sustained by one of its party activists during an alleged August 2 kidnapping.
Interior Minister Merabishvili, to whom spokespeople for President Saakashvili referred EurasiaNet, could not be reached for comment. On July 21, however, Saakashvili asserted that "doors will be open to any opposition groups which respect the law . . . "
Merab Katamadze, editor of the moderate Republican Party's monthly newspaper and the coordinator for the party's activities in the region of Kakheti, is also convinced the arrests are politically motivated.
Katamadze was arrested on charges of illegal firearm possession on June 27.
Katamadze told EurasiaNet that four men in civilian dress abducted him as he exited his car outside the Republican Party's Tbilisi office. The men, who did not identify themselves as police, according to Katamadze, first told him they were investigating an auto accident in which his car was allegedly involved.
A few minutes later, he claimed, the men informed him that a gun had been found in his car. He was taken to the interior ministry's criminal police department, where he was eventually charged with illegally carrying an unregistered firearm in his waistband.
"That was their third version [of my alleged crime]," Katamadze said. "It is all a lie."
The spokesperson for President Saakashvili's United National Movement Party stressed that the August 12 meeting between Merabishvili and the opposition illustrated the government's commitment to taking opposition concerns about the arrests seriously.
"Belonging to a political party or being a politician or a supporter of a politician does not mean that anyone has immunity [from prosecution]," said parliamentarian Irakli Kavtaradze. "[H]owever, if there are some concerns . . .we are open . . . and we are ready to discuss all these issues."
One persistent concern, according to the Public Defender's Office, is that the government is not taking the cases seriously. The General Prosecutor's Office has not made one arrest in any of the 34 cases of attacks against opposition supporters, despite the large quantity of evidence supplied by the ombudsman's office and the victims of the attacks, said Public Defender's Office representative Benashvili.
"It is possible not to find anyone in one or two cases. But when one or two months have passed and there is video footage and official letters from those people and some evidence and there are [still] no [arrests] in any of the cases . . . there is no interest to find the people who beat them, probably," she said.
General Prosecutor's Office spokesperson Khatuna Iosava responded that investigations are underway and that the office has "responded" to all the information it has received "as it should."
"When an investigation is underway, no one can [draw any conclusions] quickly," Iosava said. "Probably they [the Public Defender's Office] are in a hurry."
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.