Media blamed as teenagers rally
against jail sentence for student

By Matthew Collin
The Moscow Times
A division of The New York Times

TBILISI, Georgia — Under dark skies and driving rain, a group of schoolchildren marched up the road toward Georgia's Supreme Court building, screaming for justice. Some of their faces had been painted with the numbers of their schools, while others were waving scruffy, homemade banners with the slogan "Freedom for Giorgy!" and "We children know we are right!"

The march marked the third consecutive day of a remarkable grassroots protest led by the classmates of a teenage boy, Giorgy Zerekidze, 14, who has been sentenced to seven years in jail for attempted murder. One 14-year-old girl told me she was at the protest because she believed the boy's life would be destroyed by the psychological impact of spending his teenage years behind bars.

"All of us know that Giorgy is no angel," she conceded, "but we don't think a schoolboy should ever be given this kind of sentence."

Giorgy Zerekidze admits that he stabbed another man with a knife in a street tussle, but denies he was trying to kill him. The controversial case has raised new questions about the juvenile justice system in Georgia, where children as young as 14, like Zerekidze, can be sentenced to time in prison.

International human rights organizations have suggested that conditions in Georgian jails make them unfit as places for adults.

The children's campaign has come as a complete surprise in Tbilisi, and it has put the authorities on the defensive. Education Minister Alexander Lomaia has instructed the children to go back to their books and insists that teenagers who commit violent crimes should face strict punishment. He linked Giorgy Zerekidze's case to the recent killing of another schoolboy by a classmate. Lomaia said that even harsher measures, and not greater leniency, have to be put in place to help tackle juvenile crime.

The prosecutor's office then issued a statement suggesting that Zerekidze was some kind of habitual criminal who had a violent, larcenous past. None of these accusations against him, however, have ever been proven in court.

Some politicians have gone so far as to charge that opposition groups are using the schoolchildren in the protests in an attempt to discredit the government, and have accused the media of helping to stir up their youthful fervor.

But the boy's friends say that the decision to take their case to the streets was their own and that they opted for this course after a court upheld Zerekidze's conviction on March 19.

"How can we believe in the justice system in this country anymore," asked one, "when we've seen what they can do to kids our age?"

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.