Thousands protest at Georgian ‘foreign agent’ bill
Protesters have clashed with police in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, after Parliament backed a controversial draft law which critics say limits press freedom and suppresses civil society.
Riot police used water cannon and pepper spray to disperse the crowds outside the Parliament building.
Some protesters were seen falling on the ground and coughing, while others waved European Union (EU) and Georgian flags.
The government said 50 police officers were hurt and police gear was damaged. Police arrested 66 people, including one of Georgia’s opposition leaders, Zurab Japaridze, who was reportedly beaten.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the bill. It would require non-governmental and media organisations that receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as “foreign agents”, or face hefty fines and possible imprisonment.
The opposition says the Russian-style law marks a shift towards authoritarianism and would damage Georgia’s chances of joining the EU. Further protests outside Parliament have been called for on Wednesday.
Hours earlier, police had warned protesters to disperse with a repeated message blaring through loudspeakers. Eventually, officers in riot gear cleared the Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare outside Parliament.
US state department spokesman, Ned Price, said the draft legislation would be a tremendous setback and “would strike at some of the very rights that are central to the aspirations of the people of Georgia”.
The EU is currently considering Georgia’s application for candidate status, and EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned that the bill was “incompatible with EU values and standards”.
Russia passed its own version of a “foreign agents” law in 2012, expanding it over the years to target and suppress Western-funded Non-Governmental Organisations and media.
“The law is Russian as we all know… We don’t want to be a part of the ex-Soviet Union, we want to be a part of the European Union, we want to be pro-West,” one protester told Reuters news agency.
Speaking via video during a visit to New York, Georgian President, Salome Zourabichvili, voiced her support for the protesters: “I am by your side”. —Reuters