Georgia parliament head quits after 240 injured in crackdown

Tbilisi: The head of Georgia’s parliament quit on Friday after at least 240 people were injured in a police crackdown on mass protests, which erupted over a controversial address to lawmakers by a Russian MP. Opposition leaders have vowed to hold demonstrations until parliament is dissolved and snap elections are held.
Rallies broke out in the capital Tbilisi on Thursday after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker’s seat — a deeply controversial move in a country at loggerheads with Moscow.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds, leaving at least 160 demonstrators and 80 officers injured according to the health ministry. Police said they arrested 305 people.
The use of force in the pro-Western ex-Soviet country has sparked an international outcry, while the Kremlin condemned the protests as “Russophobic provocation”.
The presence of Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov in parliament brought a backlash in Georgia, which in 2008 fought and lost a brief but bloody war with Moscow over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Ahead of planned parliamentary polls next year, opposition groups also seek to capitalise on discontent with the ruling Georgian Dream party and its oligarch leader Bidzina Ivanishvili over the failure to kick-start a stagnant economy.
“Ivanishvili’s regime must cede power,” former president Mikheil Saakashvili said in a video address to supporters on Friday.
The United Opposition alliance has demanded snap parliamentary polls and the resignation of the interior minister.
“Peaceful mass protest will continue until these demands are met,” its leader Grigol Vashadze said.
About 10,000 protesters gathered outside parliament on Thursday afternoon after Gavrilov addressed a forum of lawmakers from predominantly Orthodox countries. Police pushed back demonstrators when they attempted to enter the parliament courtyard, but the rally remained largely peaceful until midnight when officers launched a violent crackdown.
After ambulances evacuated dozens of injured protesters, hundreds of baton-wielding riot police intervened again, beating and arresting dozens of protesters.
Georgian and foreign journalists were among those injured, according to reports. The health ministry said 102 people were being treated in hospital on Friday for their injuries.
Human Rights Watch criticised the use of tear gas and rubber bullets “against thousands of non-violent protesters”.
Amnesty International called for an “immediate, thorough and independent investigation into use of force by riot police” including against easily identifiable journalists.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili described Gavrilov’s Russian-language speech as “a crime… an offence against the country’s dignity”.
“But this can’t justify anti-state actions, calls to storm parliament and overthrow the government,” she said in a statement on Thursday as she cut short a trip to fellow ex-Soviet republic Belarus. — AFP