Tue, Nov 27, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Georgians rally for return of independent TV

AP , TBILISI

Supporters of the Georgian opposition attend a rally in Tbilisi on Sunday. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili resigned on Sunday to launch his campaign in snap presidential elections as tens of thousands of opponents gathered outside parliament for the first demonstration since emergency rule was lifted this month.

PHOTO: AFP

About 30,000 demonstrators marched across the Georgian capital to demand that authorities let a top independent television station back on the air.

Sunday's march was the first major opposition rally in Georgia since a violent dispersal of anti-government protests earlier this month, and took place as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stepped down to start campaigning for an early presidential vote on Jan. 5.

Saakashvili, as required by law, handed over his powers to his close ally, parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, according to presidential spokesman Vano Noniashvili. The parliament also voted 148-1 on Sunday to endorse Saakashvili's order to set the presidential vote for Jan. 5.

Tens of thousands marched across downtown Tbilisi and held a rally in front of parliament, urging authorities to let the station, Imedi, back on the air.

"If they don't listen to our demands, we will conduct permanent rallies," said protester Zviad Dzidziguri. "They will go on until Imedi is back on air."

Saakashvili called the election to defuse tensions after police violently dispersed opposition rallies on Nov. 7, injuring hundreds. The incident has raised doubts about the US-allied leader's commitment to democracy and drew strong criticism from the West.

"I'm sure that Jan. 5 will go down in Georgia's history as the beginning of a big move forward," Saakashvili said in a televised statement late on Saturday.

Saakashvili, who has sought to shed Russia's influence and integrate Georgia into the West, has defended the crackdown and a state of emergency he introduced as a necessary response to what he described as a coup attempt staged by Moscow. Russia angrily rejected the allegations.

The US-educated Saakashvili had won praise for his efforts to integrate the small Caucasus nation with the West. But he has faced growing discontent over the slow pace of reforms, persistent poverty and what critics call increasingly authoritarian policies.

On Nov. 7, when police clubbed and tear-gassed the opposition protesters, Saakashvili ordered the state of emergency that banned rallies and took independent news broadcasts off the air. The measure was lifted a week later, but Imedi has remained shut.

Authorities said Imedi, founded by tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, was being investigated over calls for the government's ouster. Patarkatsishvili, a Saakashvili critic, recently handed over control of Imedi to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Saakashvili defended the decision to take Imedi off the air, saying in a TV interview broadcast late on Sunday that Patarkatsishvili had "turned Imedi into a tool for destabilizing the situation in the country and ousting the government."

He dodged a question about when Imedi would be allowed to resume broadcasts, saying it could only happen after authorities receive guarantees that the station wouldn't be used by "certain political forces" to upset stability and overthrow the government.

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