Georgia strips lawmaker of immunity in protest case

International

An opposition demonstrators holds a Georgian flag as other they gather in front of the Georgian Parliament’s building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Georgia’s parliament has voted to lift the immunity of an opposition lawmaker, opening him to prosecution on charges of inciting disorder at a protest last week. The move Wednesday is sure to increase tensions in the country, where thousands have held protests outside parliament every day for a week. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia’s parliament voted Wednesday to lift an opposition lawmaker’s legal immunity, opening him to prosecution on charges of inciting disorder at a protest last week.

The move intensified political tensions in the country, where thousands have held protests outside parliament every night for almost a week.

The prosecutor’s office has said evidence from witnesses indicated the lawmaker, Niki Melia, called on protesters at the first demonstration to storm the parliament building and to fight police.

More than 240 people were injured June 20 as police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter the building. Some demonstrators were seen hoisting shields that apparently had been seized from riot police.

The protests in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi were set off by the visit of an official Russian delegation to the parliament and demands expanded to holding snap parliamentary elections.

Russia is widely resented in Georgia because of the short 2008 war in which Georgia lost control of two separatist territories, which now host Russian troops and receive Russian aid.

Many Georgians believe the current government is overly accommodating to Russia. Georgia’s ruling party is led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.

Melia, a leader of the opposition United National Movement, told demonstrators Wednesday night that members of parliament who voted to strip his immunity are “the slaves of Ivanishvili.”

“Ivanishvili’s government has been trying to weaken opposition and the UNM is the largest opposition party and they think that putting our leader in jail will somehow diminish the strength of the opposition,” lawmaker Salome Samadashvili said at the demonstration.

The protesters are also demanding the resignation of the interior minister in the wake of the police response last week.

President Salome Zurabishvili on Wednesday said the police response is being investigated and “those who should bear the penalty should be punished.”

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Jim Heintz in Moscow and Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi contributed to this story.

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