A high-profile sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Georgia's activist community has taken an unusual twist: The man being accused has asked a court to order two women to publicly announce that he is not – as they have previously claimed – a … male sexual organ. The demand, legal analysts say, is a first in the history of Georgian jurisprudence.
The complaint was filed by former NGO chief Zviad Devdariani, who is accused of sexual harassment by several women. The allegations became perhaps the biggest echo of the #MeToo movement in the Caucasus.
Devdariani was executive director of a human rights advocacy group, the Civil Development Agency (CIDA), when the accusations hit in March. Married with three children, he was a prominent member of the NGO community and a fervent defender of women’s rights.
According to the allegations, first made public by the activist group Georgian Women’s Movement, Devdariani repeatedly made unwanted advances toward women with whom he often had professional relationships and even demanded sex in exchange for a position in his organization. The allegations became public just as Devdariani was nominated for membership on the board of trustees of Georgian Public Broadcasting, potentially an important position in directing the editorial policy of state television.
Devdariani vigorously denied the allegations, but the scandal roiled Georgia’s civil society – a vibrant caste of democracy watchdogs, human rights advocates and policy advisers. Devdariani was swiftly disowned by many friends, colleagues and fellow activists, and effectively drubbed out of the NGO world.
Police began investigating him for stalking, which only became punishable by law in Georgia last year. He resigned from his organization and embarked on a campaign to clear his name.
In a press statement, Devdariani said he was “tried by Facebook,” and intended to restore his good name through legal avenues. The allegations against him were a part of a deliberate character assassination campaign, he said, which “was a terrible blow not just for me, but also for my family, for my three children.”
His decision to challenge his accusers in court for libel angered many women’s rights activists and they did not stint in their opprobrium of Devdariani. This was when two members of Georgian Women’s Movement – journalism professor Nino Danelia and member of parliament Tamara Kakabadze – compared Devdariani to the aforementioned anatomic part on Facebook. They used two different variations of the word, but both mean – in Georgian as in English – an obnoxious, contemptible person.
Devdariani has demanded that the two women state for the record publicly that he is not, in fact, that thing, according to a lawsuit made public earlier this month in local media.
According to Devdariani’s complaint, he wants Kakabadze and Danelia to each retract their original comments, and gave specific sentences with which to do it: “It is not true that Zviad Devdariani insists on being a dick and this is his fundamental position…“ and “it is not true that Zviad Devdariani is a total prick.” Danelia used a milder version of the word that can also have other meanings.
The legal gambit is novel and, according to lawyers consulted by Tamada Tales, unlikely to succeed. “Even if the court treats these statements as libelous, which I can’t imagine happening, the court will need to define on what it means to be a dick and if the plaintiff fits the description,” said one lawyer, who asked not to be named because of personal connections to all sides in the litigation.
Georgian law is modeled after the American legal system, and as such has strong protections for the freedom of speech. “The plaintiff demands the defendant to repudiate her own personal opinion which is incontrovertibly against the law,” lawyer Giorgi Mshvenieradze told Netgazeti, an online gazette, discussing Kakabadze’s case. “Georgian law on freedom of speech and expression does not allow restriction of personal opinion,” he said.
Another legal analyst, who also insisted on anonymity because of a past professional association with Devdariani, said he has “no case” against Danelia. “The court will hear it, since the complaint was accepted… but it will not even order an apology,” the analyst said.
Devdariani’s lawyer, Dimitri Gabunia, criticized the defendants for making his complaints pubic and advised them to prepare for the hearings instead. Either way, the case has significant implications for Georgia’s women’s movement, which in recent years has gained strength in the largely patriarchal, often sexist society.
Danelia, for one, is putting her foot down. She told Tamada Tales that her belief that Devdariani is what she said he is has only become stronger following his charges. “I look forward to an opportunity to repeat that in his face in the halls of the courthouse,” she said.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.