A protester detained over alleged violence against riot police has garnered support from critics of the Georgian government, who see signs of selective justice and an intention to demonize the protests.
Lazare Grigoriadis, 21, has been sent to pretrial detention and faces up to 11 years in jail for allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at police during the recent anti-foreign agent law protests in Tbilisi.
But the government's demonizing rhetoric against the young man made many think that the ruling party has picked a "perfect criminal" to crack down on one of the strongest waves of anti-government sentiment in recent years.
Ruling party leaders seem to be betting that the detainee's unconventional appearance -- a tattooed face and bleach-blond hair -- will be off-putting to conservative members of the public.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said on March 30 that Grigoriadis seemed to be a person of "confused orientation," a phrase many saw as anti-gay innuendo.
He then went on to allege that the "wayward" young man was connected to pursuing the interests of the "Bolshevik" opposition.
Police announced the arrest of Grigoriadis on March 29, in connection to protests against the widely-opposed "foreign agent" laws in Georgia earlier in the month.
The massive opposition and days of turbulent protests pushed the ruling party to take back the stigmatizing bills, but the aftershocks continue to reverberate, including in prosecutions of protesters and the ruling party's continued use of sharp rhetoric to discredit its critics.
During the rallies on March 7 and 8, protesters and riot police clashed periodically. According to many assessments, including the Georgian ombudsperson's, riot police used disproportionate force in dispersing the protesters.
The allegations against Grigoriadis include throwing a petrol bomb (Molotov cocktail) and stones at police officers during the protests and setting a police car on fire.
The video evidence posted by the police shows separate episodes of what appears to be a young man with an unidentifiable face and hair in at least two separate outfits committing the relevant acts.
According to the police report, the suspect has been penalized in the past for disobeying police and was pending trial in a domestic violence case.
But critics believe the government is using the young man as a scapegoat to demonize the protests while also setting a precedent of harsh punishment to prevent future disobedience.
"Lazare's presumption of innocence has been violated, as Irakli Kobakhidze already dubbed him as a violent young man and used hate speech against the suspect," former Georgian ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria wrote on Facebook. She then attributed the rhetoric to a "political intention on part of the prime minister and the ruling party leader to demonize the protest participants."
Earlier, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had said some of the protesting youth were wearing "Satanist uniforms." Garibashvili doubled down on his rhetoric on April 3, speaking of an "anarchist" who tried to "burn a policeman alive" and alleging it to be a part of a wider "destabilization" scheme. "We won't forgive anyone. This is an unacceptable red line where we are going to be uncompromising."
This kind of rhetoric has led many to think that the authorities may be trying to use Grigoriadis to discredit his entire generation whose engagement played a vital role in the protest's success.
The suspect's lawyers say Grigoriadis was indeed charged with domestic violence several years ago. (According to pro-government media, which said Grigoriadis had been "convicted" of domestic violence, the suspect had attacked his father – who is now fiercely defending his son.) According to the defense, he has since been released on bail, but has not been convicted, and critics think the authorities are using these records to further discredit the suspect.
The suspect confessed to the crime in his initial testimony to police which took place without a lawyer present. Lika Bitadze, the lawyer of the detainee, told reporters on April 3 that he was initially denied a lawyer and was pressured into giving a confession under threat that his friend would also be arrested. Bitadze further cited the defendant as saying that his hair was shaved against his will after he was placed in pretrial detention.
The lawyers did not have the chance to see the suspect in detention until today.
Opposition parties have said Grigoriadis has no links to them but defended him, calling him a victim of selective justice and political revenge.
They point in particular at the hate crimes committed by Georgian far-right groups such as Alt-Info, whose leaders have gone unpunished for organizing violent pogroms.
The young man, who remains in custody and faces a jail term of 7 to 11 years, has drawn support from various groups, including students, artists, activists, and intellectuals.
Protest rallies were held to put pressure on authorities, and are set to continue in the weeks and months to come. Among the supporters was Viola von Cramon, a member of the EU Parliament, who attended one of the rallies in Tbilisi, inviting the fury of Georgian Dream members.
"Before you have to arrest many more of us, release the one who did the job for all of us! Freedom for Lazare!" Tamada, a prominent Georgian musician, wrote on his official Facebook page on March 31.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.