European Court seeks Georgia’s response to administrative sanction of peaceful protesters
On 14 September 2016, the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case concerning the arrest of seven peaceful protesters who were holding a demonstration against a large-scale construction project – Panorama Tbilisi – in the Georgian capital. The applicants were represented by the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (Tbilisi).
The ‘Panorama Tbilisi’ project envisaged building several luxury hotels and business centres in the heart of Tbilisi’s Old Town, linked by funicular railway. Former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili was one of the main investors. Opponents raised concerns about the irreparable damage the construction works would cause to the Old Town, and the uniqueness of Tbilisi’s landscape.
The applicants, along with several hundred other protesters, gathered near Tbilisi City Council on 19 July 2015 to express their opposition to the Panorama Tbilisi project. One of the applicants was quietly holding a banner with a slogan that compared the project to a penis, but was not chanting this or any other slogan; half an hour later, he was taken to police headquarters. In an act of solidarity, the other six applicants wrote the same slogan on pieces of paper, and they too were arrested (along with three other randomly apprehended protesters). All the applicants were accused of minor breach of public order – an administrative offence – and fined 100 GEL (approximately €40). The Tbilisi City Court ruled that the word used was “a sheer obscenity, void of any political, cultural, educational or scientific value”, did not contribute towards public debate and instead was a scornful insult to the public.
In their application before the European Court, the applicants complain that their arrest and fine breached their right to freedom of expression (Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights – ECHR), as they were arrested because of the slogans on their placards. They also claim a violation of their right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11 ECHR), as they were prevented from peacefully protesting against the Panorama project.
The case was lodged at the European Court on 12 January 2016, and was communicated to the Georgian Government just 8 months later for its observations. The case raises the extent to which the right to free speech can be limited, in circumstances where others may be offended. The Government’s observations must be submitted to the Court by January 2017, and the applicants will then have an opportunity to respond.