Fears of a crackdown are rising in Georgia following a series of instances of extraordinary restriction of the freedoms of assembly and expression.
Rallies were held in Tbilisi over the weekend of June 3-4 to show discontent toward arbitrary police conduct in various episodes during the previous week. This conduct includes what many see as Kremlin-style moves like detaining peaceful protesters for holding banners and preventing a demonstrator from setting up a protest tent.
"It is concerning that the Georgian public is witnessing such a negative trend undermining the fundamental principles of democracy and practically annulling the basic right to freedom of expression," 20 Georgian human rights watchdogs said in a joint statement on June 3.
The backlash peaked as images spread of police detaining peaceful protesters for no discernable reason on the night of 2-3 June.
One of the first detainees was Shota Tutberidze, a lawyer who was holding a sign featuring the name Irakli (ირაკლი) - a reference to Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili - with one of the letters replaced (ირაყლი) in such a way that it resembles a vulgar word for male genitalia.
More detentions followed as other activists rushed to the scene to show solidarity with similar banners of their own.
A total of seven peaceful protesters were detained on June 2, including prominent Georgian human rights advocates. Some activists reportedly sustained injuries during the process. Images show police officers forcefully detaining and confiscating banners from the protesters. One video showed Edvard Marikashvili, a lawyer and head of the Georgian Democracy Initiative, a local NGO, being detained for holding a blank sheet of paper.
"Freedom of expression protects not only positive general information and ideas, ones that are inoffensive and indifferent, but also those that are offensive, shocking, and disturbing," Georgia's Ombudsperson Levan Ioseliani said in a statement criticizing the detentions. "The existence of a democratic society is inconceivable without adhering to this standard."
The concerns about the rising crackdown, however, started emerging earlier. In late May, police prevented a protester from setting up a tent near the parliament building.
That protester, Beka Grigoriadis, has been calling for the release of his son who is standing trial for allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at police forces and setting a police car on fire during March protests against the adoption of controversial foreign agent laws.
(The father of the defendant claims there is not enough evidence to support the allegations. A separate campaign was launched to call for the release of the young man whose unconventional looks, many believe, made him the "perfect criminal" for authorities to crack down on the successful March protests by delivering an exemplary strict punishment).
After days of struggling to set up a tent, Grigoriadis, too, was detained and fined 2,000 Lari (about $770) for allegedly disobeying police orders. He was finally able to set up a tent on June 3, under the protection of a human chain that protesters formed around him.
On June 3, several people were also detained in Batumi, where activists gathered in solidarity with those detained the previous day in Tbilisi.
The arbitrary police conduct is seen as a new milestone in the Georgian authorities' increasingly illiberal approach to governance.
Images of police arresting people for holding banners or blank sheets of paper reminded many of similar scenes in Russia during the anti-war protests in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Such similarities are particularly disturbing for pro-Western Georgians who fear their government's policies are becoming more and more aligned with the Kremlin's.
"A lack of tolerance for dissent is inconsistent with the values of the Euro-Atlantic family of nations, which the majority of the people of Georgia wish to join," the U.S. Embassy in Georgia said on June 3, adding that it was closely monitoring "the cases of those who were arrested and detained on June 2 while peacefully demonstrating in front of Parliament."
Those detained in Tbilisi were released after two days in custody. Police told them they faced administrative charges including petty hooliganism and police disobedience. No court hearing has taken place yet, and it is unknown when or whether they will be tried.
It is unclear what triggered the harsh response to the peaceful protesters. But if it was the modified "Irakli" sign that touched a nerve with the authorities, the attempt to suppress it has had the opposite effect.
The alternate version of the PM's name is one of the most trending words in the Georgian public discourse these days.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.