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New Law on Demonstrations comes into force

By Mzia Kupunia
Wednesday, August 19
The controversial new law on demonstrations, which empowers police to use non-lethal weapons against demonstrators and restricts the holding of street rallies, came into force on Tuesday. This package of amendments to the previous law was initiated by a group of ruling party MPs and approved by Parliament at first hearing on July 11.

The new law, described by the Public Defender as a “step back” from democracy, prohibits the deliberate prevention of traffic movement by erecting barriers or other means. Blocking traffic movement is only allowed if the number of demonstrators is large enough to do this without any other action being taken. The law gives the police the right to use non-lethal weapons, including rubber and plastic bullets, against those who violate it. Government officials say the list of weapons and projectiles which can be used for this purpose does not include any weapon banned by international conventions. However following opposition demands the law states that the exact rules and conditions for using non-lethal weapons will be defined. The Interior Minister must publish this document in a month. The new law also envisages increasing the punishment for civil breaches of the law from 30 to 90 days in jail.

The law has immediately triggered criticism from the opposition and civil society organisations. A group of NGOs released a statement shortly after the bill was approved by Parliament saying that “the package is a step back in the path to democracy.” They slammed the amendments for “prolonging administrative detention without any justification, introducing particularly severe sanctions for acts which are not dangerous to the public, allowing the use of non-lethal weapons and thus jeopardizing human health and lives in the absence of appropriate regulations and limiting freedom of assembly disproportionately.”

The Parliamentary opposition has expressed its discontent about the new law being adopted before the conclusions of the Venice Commission, the advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, have been published. The draft amendments were sent to the Commission, but the Government did not consider the suggestion of Parliamentary minority politicians that it should wait until the Commission gave its conclusions before to adopting the law. Christian Democrat MP Levan Vephkhvadze said the opposition members’ advice was “unacceptable” to the authorities. He noted that the recommendations of the Venice Commission, which he expects will be received by October or November, will not change much anyway. “Its conclusions are recommendations, they are not mandatory,” Vephkhvadze stated. “I am doubtful that even if those conclusions are negative, the minority will be able to make any changes in the law, changes which will make it more human,” he said.

Government officials do not accept the opposition criticism. “The new law clarifies a lot of issues and does not leave room for interpretations. In any case, we consider it a step forward in respect of clearer definitions. The law corresponds to all international standards,” National Movement MP Gigi Tsereteli said on Tuesday.

Some doubt that the new legislation can be really a “step forward”. Vakhtang Khmaladze, one of the authors of the current Georgian Constitution, says the amendments to the previous Law on Police and Law on Administrative Offences concern him most of all. “We have seen many of these kinds of ‘steps forward’ during the last five years, but they have not brought any positive results,” Khmaladze told The Messenger. “I am not sure that the Venice Commission suggestions would have any influence on the Government. Many of the Commission’s previous recommendations have been ignored by the authorities,” he added.

The “radical” opposition, which was blocking Rustaveli Avenue with improvised cells demanding the resignation of President Saakashvili when the amendments were proposed, described them at that time as pressure on the opposition. Government members maintained that they would just fill gaps in existing legislation and make it more “specific.” National Movement MP Pavle Kublashvili, who was among the initiators of the amendments, said the new draft law was not aimed at the “radical” opposition rallies.