Protests led by a murdered teenager’s father are set to continue in Georgia as negotiations with top government officials on June 4 failed to resolve the standoff.
Sticking to his main demand, Zaza Saralidze said that “the system must fall” as he emerged from an hours-long meeting with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Saralidze gave the government until June 10 to bring to justice the killers of his teenage son as well as the officials that, he alleges, were involved in a cover-up.
“I need to see concrete steps by the 10th, otherwise I’m sticking to my position,” that the entire government needs to step down, Saralidze told journalists after the meeting.
Saralidze has been leading mass protests outside parliament since May 31, when the Tbilisi City Court acquitted two teenagers of the premeditated murder of his son. Thousands have gathered daily on Rustaveli Avenue, often blocking traffic.
Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili, both aged 16, were stabbed to death in a bloody fight between schoolboys near Tbilisi’s prestigious School 51 in December. The brutal confrontation shocked Georgia and has become known as the Khorava Street Murders.
The father has specifically pointed at Mirza Subeliani, a former employee of the Prosecutor’s Office, whose son and nephew witnessed and possibly were involved in the confrontation on Khorava Street. Subeliani resigned shortly after the murders.
The prosecution’s failure to secure a conviction – and the sight of the bereaved father seeking justice in the streets – has highlighted mounting frustrations with the entire justice system, which, protesters maintain, is riddled with corruption, nepotism and incompetence.
The protests are “an expression of grievances building in society against the unfair justice system and social policy,” said prominent Tbilisi-based human rights organizations in a collective statement on June 2.
Saralidze’s stand has offered parents from less privileged regions the opportunity to bring to Tbilisi their fight for justice for their sons. “I will stand by Zaza Saralidze until he finds justice,” said Malkhaz Machalikashvili at the rally on June 3. Machalikashvili’s son Temirlan was shot by special forces in December last year in an anti-terror operation in Pankisi region, a predominantly Muslim region that has been a recruiting grounds for the Islamic State. Police claim that 19-year-old Temirlan held a grenade when they broke into his house, but Machalikashvili insists that his son held a mobile phone and was unarmed.
Other parents, some holding photos of their deceased sons, also lined up to address the crowd on June 3, each recounting a failed quest for justice.
Prosecutor General Irakli Shotadze resigned on May 31, but the protesters are also calling on other top officials, including Prime Minister Kvirikashvili and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, to step down. Tsulukiani has refused, telling journalists on June 4: “I can’t afford to participate in the psychosis that people who call for my resignation are engaged in.”
The governing Georgian Dream Party has offered to set up an opposition-led parliamentary commission to probe the Khorava Street Murders and the Prosecutor’s handling of the case.
The protests have indeed invited the beleaguered political opposition – impaired by the predominance of Georgian Dream at virtually every legislative and executive level – to mount an offensive. Saralidze, who initially tried to distance himself from political groups, later called on opposition parties to help him “defeat the system.”
But the involvement of political parties has engendered divisions among Saralidze’s supporters, with some accusing the opposition United National Movement (UNM) of opportunism. Moreover, during its turn as the governing party, the UNM also faced accusations it covered up young men’s deaths at the hands of government officials.
The UNM wants “to stir unrest and come to power, and they are using this unfortunate man and this terrible tragedy for this,” said Ia Metreveli, mother of Buta Robakidze, who was shot and killed in a police raid in 2004. At the time, the UNM was pummeled by accusations it helped protect officials responsible for the deaths of Robakidze and another young man, Sandro Girgvliani.