One man’s battle for justice for his murdered son has turned into a major challenge for the Georgian government, with top officials facing mass calls for their resignations.
Thousands gathered in central Tbilisi late in the evening of May 31 and blocked traffic on the main artery Rustaveli Avenue after a high-profile trial ended without a conviction. The protesters decried a Georgian justice system they said is corrupted by political connections and nepotism.
It was only the latest in a series of large protests against official misconduct in Tbilisi, following demonstrations over heavy-handed police raids of nightclubs earlier in May.
This time, the spark was the acquittal of two teenagers of the premeditated murder of 16-year-old Davit Saralidze, who was killed in a knife fight late last year.
Television viewers across the country were deeply moved by the sight of Saralidze’s grieving father emerging from the courthouse, restrained by friends and bailiffs, to say that the verdict failed to deliver justice for his son.
“I beg of you, of all parents out there and all of Georgia, come stand by me,” an emotional Zviad Saralidze said in front of TV cameras outside the courthouse. “I’m fighting with the system and with the help of the Georgian people I will bring this system down.”
Thousands responded to his call. “I could not have stayed home to leave this poor man to fight alone,” one middle-aged woman told Eurasianet late on May 31. “If police can’t arrest people who committed heinous murders in the broad daylight, if courts can’t punish them, what kind of government is this? They need to go.”
The gruesome group brawl among schoolchildren that left two 16-year-olds, Davit Saralidze and Levan Dadunashvili, dead, became a national tragedy. It touched off a conversation on the problem of bullying in schools and also was seen as a test of the authorities’ ability to handle a case where influential officials may be involved.
Two individuals were charged in the attack, but Zviad Saralidze had long claimed that there were more assailants. The prosecutor’s investigation has been hounded by accusations that a former employee of the office, Mirza Subeliani, helped cover up the role of his nephew, a main witness in the case, and his nephew’s friend, a prime suspect. Subeliani resigned from the Prosecutor’s Office shortly after the murders.
The court ruled on May 31 that none of the fatal wounds of the total of 12 stab wounds sustained by Saralidze were delivered by the prosecution’s prime suspects, effectively meaning that no one was charged for the murder.
The Prosecutor’s Office promised to appeal the court decision, but Saralidze says he has lost trust in the investigation.
With allegations of government officials’ attempts to prevent justice from being served and one parent’s war on the system, the case harkened back to the 2006 high-profile murder of Sandro Girgvliani, whose late mother Irina Enukidze led a fierce battle against the government of then President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The current government, led by the governing Georgia Dream party and its billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, came to power on promises to dismantle the old system and its impunity of government officials and their relatives. Now critics charge that the Georgian Dream failed at its moment of truth and that justice for ordinary citizens still ends where high-level political interests begin.
“Zviad Saralidze is picking up the flag that was planted by Irina Enukidze,” one protester said, addressing the crowd of protesters.
Prosecutor General Irakli Shotadze quit on May 31. Later in the day Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili was booed away when he tried to speak to the protesters. Instead, the demonstrators called for President Giorgi Margvelashvili to come and join the rally.
Margvelashvili, who is at odds with the ruling Georgian Dream Party, came to Rustaveli Avenue the next day to meet Saralidze, who is staying in a tent in front of the parliament building. “I’ve primarily come here to share the pain that fills this man’s heart,” Margvelashvili said. “I shall not tire until Georgia becomes a country where people believe in justice.”
On June 1, protests continued in Tbilisi and had spread to other cities in Georgia, as well.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.