Demonstrators rally in support of Birja Mafia rapper duo, June 10, 2017. Photo: Civil.ge/Eana Korbezashvili
Thousands of citizens took to the streets on June 10, in Tbilisi and in Batumi, criticizing the police for Birja Mafia rapper duo arrest, as well as the government’s “repressive” drug policy.
28-year-old Mikheil Mgaloblishvili (Young Mic) and 21-year-old Giorgi Keburia (Kay-G) were arrested by the police on charges of illegal purchase and possession of excess amount of drugs, punishable by imprisonment for a term of eight to twenty years or by lifetime imprisonment.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a press release on June 9 that 1.5 grams of MDMA, a synthetic drug substance known also as ecstasy, were seized from Mgaloblishvili, while 2.3 grams were seized from Keburia.
The Ministry also reported that Giorgi Keburia pled guilty to the charge. The police account was, however, challenged by Mgaloblishvili, who said at the court hearing on June 9 that drugs were planted by the police in response to their recent rap video mocking police. Keburia later denied the charges as well, saying he was forced to admit his guilt.
Birja Mafia’s three-minute-long rap song, depicting a policeman as a dog was first released in March, 2017, but was soon removed from Youtube allegedly at the request of the police authorities. The later version of the video, published on Youtube on June 4, shows the policeman blurred.
Mgaloblishvili claimed at the court hearing that the policemen told him during the detention procedures that he “upset someone” with the video and that his arrest was to teach him “a lesson.”
Birja Mafia members’ arrest sparked public outcry in Tbilisi, with several thousand demonstrators, including rights groups and individual activists, marching down the Rustaveli Avenue towards the Parliament building, criticizing the police handling of the case and requesting the immediate release of the detained rappers.
The Public Defender’s office commented on the matter on June 10, saying it would follow the case and study it in detail. The Public Defender pointed out in its statement that both “the content and the visual side of the video clip is protected under the freedom of expression,” and called on the Prosecutor’s Office to launch an investigation over the claims of police abuse of its authority.
Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandre Jejelava was the first government official to comment on the matter. Speaking to reporters early on June 10, Jejelava said if the two violated law, “they should be held accountable.” “Claims that they were arrested only for what they expressed in the video, is awful: such disrespect to the law enforcement officers is a step against statehood,” he added.
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili released a statement on the arrest on June 10, saying the government’s drug policy “is excessively harsh and requires liberalization.” “I urge the Parliament to accelerate work on the issue, so that we manage to adopt a law that is humane and in line with European standards at least for the Autumn session [of the Parliament].”
“I would also like to address the youth - every step and every decision that the government takes is aimed at ensuring a free and a civilized environment for you, the future of our country,” the Prime Minister stated.
“We are sparing no effort to establish a country, where freedom of speech and expression, personal liberty will be not a [mere] promise, but a fact. No young person, no citizen in this country has been persecuted for freedom of expression under our government and our society will not face this threat in the future as well.”
Kvirikashvili added that the Prosecutor’s Office would examine the case “within the shortest time possible.”
Later on June 10, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s rapper son, Bera, wrote a brief Facebook message, saying: “I stand with you, boys.”
Energy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Kakha Kaladze, who reportedly will be the ruling party’s mayoral pick for Tbilisi, posted a late-night video message as well, saying the country’s drug policy requires “radical changes.”
“It is unacceptable for all of us, be it a Government minister or an individual citizen, when we permit, even in the form of a suspicion, the possibility of police officer planting a drug. This practice needs to stay in the past and I am sure, it will stay in the past, when we liberalize the drug policy and bring the police reform to an end,” Kaladze noted.
“It is completely unacceptable if misdemeanor of an individual policeman casts shadow on the policemen [as a whole], people, who are defending the country at the risk of their lives,” Kaladze also stated.
The Energy Minister added that the “internal investigation” was underway by the Prosecutor’s Office and that the law enforcement agencies would “do everything possible to adequately punish those guilty or those who committed a misdemeanor in this particular case.”