#freebirjamafia: Erika Copeland On Police Corruption and Freedom Of Speech In Georgia

 

On June 6th, both Mishka Mgaloblishvili and Giorgi Keburia should have been full of excitement. Their rap group, Birja Mafia, had just released a new music video for the single “Tsi Sahvi Zeda” and their popularity was growing. Instead, both were sitting in jail cells after being arrested for possession of 3.8 grams of MDMA between them.

Their arrests raised questions right away. For days, they had been hearing ominous rumblings regarding their music video, which depicted a police officer on a dog chain while on his hands and knees and a bone in his mouth. Adjaranet, who had financed the music video, had asked them to remove the video because they could possibly face problems from the state. Mgaloblishvili and Keburia quickly blurred out the police officer, however both were soon enough found in possession of drugs. Clearly, the coincidence was far too great. Two men with no criminal record nor history of drug use that knew they were under pressure from the Georgian police would know better than to carry enough MDMA to get almost forty people high. With the Georgian police’s past record, this circumstance had corruption written all over it and the accusation that police planted these drugs seemed all too logical.

Despite the improvements made in combatting police corruption since the Rose Revolution, the Georgian police have been regularly accused of human rights abuses, including murder. Likewise, Georgia has long had a highly draconian drug policy that involves up to multiple year sentences for minor drug convictions and has one of the highest incarcerated populations in the world. As a result, if found guilty both Mgaloblishvili and Keburia would face upwards of twenty years in jail.

Because of their popularity and the clear miscarriage of justice, large segments of Georgia’s young population quickly mobilized in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi to protest their arrest. Filling up Rustaveli Avenue in the pouring rain, Tbilisi’s young population affirmed that democracy in Georgia is not located within the institutions of the state but within the will of the people to ensure the promises of justice and the rule of law are kept. Since then, both rappers have been temporarily released, although still face trial.

We spoke about Birja Mafia’s arrest with the main organizer of these protests, Erika Copeland. Erika is an English teacher from America, currently located in Tbilisi. She is also the wife and mother to Mishka’s child. We spoke to her about how this attempt at silencing and humiliating the members of Birja Mafia represents not only an assault on Georgian democracy and freedom of speech, but also an unjust attack on a young loving family. We at Post Pravda stand with Erika and all the other protestors in believing the charges against these artists should be dropped and those behind their arrest should be charged with corruption.

 

I can only begin to comprehend the shock you must be in. Your husband and father to your child has been arrested and falsely accused of having MDMA on them despite no apparent history of drug use or past drug convictions. How did you find out about his arrest? More importantly though, how are you and your child doing?

This entire situation is truly ironic. Mishka has always been anti-drugs since the day I met him. He is an extremely health-conscious person. He doesn’t drink, smoke, or do any drugs of any kind. A week ago, we decided as a couple to enter a fitness competition here in Georgia. Both of us work out and he has done a few promotional videos for a gym called Prolife here in Tbilisi. He has always promoted a healthy lifestyle. The person he is playing in his Birja Mafia videos is a character he created called Barkala. His videos were never intended to be taken seriously. The entire mantra of the group is to make fun of these kind of “birja” guys. It’s a lifestyle that he in no way takes part in in real life. Mishka’s main goal in life for his career was to bring HIP HOP to Georgia. He wanted the Georgian people to love hip hop as much as him and Birja Mafia was creating the dream for him. He was becoming more and more popular with every new song he was releasing. Unfortunately, with his latest video TSL Shavi Zeda, Mishka gained the attention of the police because of the depiction of the police officer as a “dog”, bowing down to him and his music partner Kay G. He was told by the company that sponsored the video, Adjaranet, that there was a problem with the video, but never stressed that his life could be in danger.

On June 7th, when he was walking out of Imedi TV station after visiting another Birja Mafia member, the police stopped him. They then proceeded to put him under arrest and verbally and physically assaulted him while he was in the police car. That is when they planted the drugs on him. They ‘claim’ that MDMA was found in his pocket. A large amount of pills too. He denied they were his and they proceeded to tell him that someone was angry with him and that he must be punished for his music video. Mishka expressed this in court and claimed his innocence. I was there watching my husband do his best to defend himself to the judge. He was articulating everything extremely well and was certain the judge would believe his innocence. He has never been in trouble with the law before and works for a television station here called Maestro. He has a segment with them where he goes to schools and speaks to students.

I did not know the severity of the situation until 3 days later. I was told they found pills on him, but I assumed they were talking about his allergy medication. They searched my house and found nothing. I did not know he was charged with this crime of possession of illegal drugs until Friday, even though we was arrested on Wednesday. I believed with all my heart that he would be out in only a few days and everything would go back to normal. Unfortunately, I was wrong and he could face 8-20 years, or possibly life in prison, due to the harsh drug laws in Georgia.

My daughter does not understand what is happening, but knows that something is not right and can’t understand why she hasn’t seen her daddy in days. She asks to watch his music videos and is happy to see him. I am extremely stressed out and concerned for my husband’s safety and well-being. I am also concerned that he will be convicted of a crime he did not commit because of police corruption.

 

Since 2003, Georgia has marketed itself as being a bastion of free speech and has compared itself favorably to the autocratic Putin regime in Russia. Nonetheless, the police have been regularly accused of both murder, assault, and recently been involved in the kidnapping of an Azeri journalist involved in the opposition. Can you please speak about your husband’s protest against the police in his music video?

I honestly don’t believe Mishka thought that his music video would cause so much anger within the police department. He just wanted the attention of his fans and like I said before, he is just playing a character. Birja guys are like that, anti-police and all about girls, drugs, sex, and guns. Mishka on the other hand is extremely religious and a family man. Mishka is not anti-police and has never been. He respects his government and is proud to be a Georgian citizen. He worked in the military for 1 year when he was 23 years old doing security at a national building. He has respect for people wearing the uniform and badge. I know – his fans know – that this is just a parody and not his, nor Kay G’s, real mentality or feelings towards the law.

 

Lastly, individuals both inside and outside of Georgia want to support Mishka and Giorgi. What can people do to help support you and pressure the Georgian government to release them?

People can help by spreading the word that two Georgians’ human rights were violated due to their music and love for hip hop. We would really love the support from other hip hop artists. Mishka married me, a bi-racial black girl from America. He has been rapping since he was 12 years old, and his love for hip hop music was his life. He mastered rap by studying Eminem and Tupac and wanted to be at the same calibre as them one day. He has many stage names, all with a different dynamic. He is best known as Young Mic for Georgian hip hop, then Barkala from Birja Mafia, and Pash Lyfe for when he raps in English.

Bera has expressed his support and Bidzina Ivanishvili, which is HUGE! We need more support like that to make this international news. No one should be sent to prison just simply because they are a rapper!

We set up a youcaring fund: youcaring.com/youngmic

Hashtags: #freebirjamafia #standforbirjamafia

We need to go after the policemen who did this. We need the world to listen. Hip Hop music is a world-wide phenomenon. American artists like N.W.A made people like Mishka Mgaloblishvili and Giorgi Keburia, Georgian citizens, want to pursue the same career!