Water cannon used to disperse peaceful rally in Georgia

Riot police clear barricaded parliament entrances and surrounding territory after thousands rally for electoral reform.

    Riot police fired water cannon to remove thousands of anti-government demonstrators from the barricaded parliament in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, opening the city's main avenue.

    Local media reported several arrests and injuries after Monday's crackdown on the protesters who called for an early parliamentary election after the ruling party backtracked on its promise of reforming the election system.

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    The interior ministry said in a statement earlier on Monday that disrupting the parliament's activity was a violation of Georgian law, prompting the crackdown.

    "A peaceful rally, which started on Rustaveli Avenue in front of the parliament building, later transformed into an unlawful act," it said.

    Security forces in black helmets and riot shields advanced from different sides towards the parliament building, clearing their path of protesters, their tents and barricades.

    A Reuters news agency reporter saw two policemen firing tear gas at a crowd at one location, though police later denied doing so.

    Some demonstrators pleaded with the officers to use their skills against Russian troops stationed along Georgia's dividing line with its two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia instead of cracking down on pro-democracy protesters.

    Others called the police "slaves" of Georgia's richest man and ruling party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, who they said was trying to establish a "dictatorship" in the country.

    Tbilisi protests
     Opposition parties called for the rallies after forming a rare united front against the ruling party [Vano Shlamov/AFP] 

    Following the crackdown, a smaller number of protesters remained on the steps of the parliament surrounded by a chain of police with protest leaders chanting "shame on you" to the officers.

    Nika Melia, one of the leaders of the opposition party National Movement, told local reporters at the parliament the protests would not stop.

    "They want to trample on the will of the people, it is impossible to do," said Melia.

    Later on Monday, a joint statement by several NGOs called on the government to refrain from using force against peaceful protesters, saying it might result in "full political destabilisation" and "lawlessness".

    "[We call on the government] to act in accordance with the guidelines of international organisations within the framework of the constitution, in accordance with democratic principles, in order to maintain public order," it said.

    The NGOs also called on the government to engage in constructive dialogue with the opposition and civil society, and to begin work on a transition to a proportional electoral system.

    Rare unity

    Opposition parties called for the rallies after forming a rare united front against the ruling Georgian Dream party, whose MPs last week voted down legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

    Critics say the Georgian Dream unfairly benefits from the current voting system, which sees half of the parliament seats assigned by proportional representation and the other half by party lists.

    The ruling party won nearly 77 percent of seats in the 2016 parliamentary election despite garnering only 48.7 percent of the vote.

    Demonstration in Georgia
    Critics say the Georgian Dream unfairly benefits from the current voting system [Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu]

    Ivanishvili announced "large-scale political reform" following a summer of protests that saw 240 people injured in a police crackdown.

    Two peaceful protesters including a teenaged girl lost an eye at the time.

    In power since 2012, the ruling party has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

    Critics accuse Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents, suffocating critical media, and creating a corrupt political system where his private interests dominate government decision-making.

    Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a protest against the government demanding an early parliamentary election in Tbilisi
    Several protesters were arrested during Monday's crackdown [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies