TBILISI, Oct 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Georgian tennis star Nikoloz Basilashvili is due to appear in court on Tuesday on charges of assaulting his ex-wife in a high-profile case that has split public opinion and spotlighted domestic violence in the former Soviet republic.

Basilashvili, ranked 33rd in the world, was arrested in May after Neka Dorokashvili accused him of attacking her in front of their five-year-old son. Basilashvili, 28, has denied the accusations.

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At a preliminary hearing in Tbilisi, judges are expected to decide whether to put Basilashvili on trial or ask prosecutors to submit more evidence first.

The case has grabbed headlines in the Caucasus nation, with rights groups saying it could spur increased discussion of domestic violence and encourage more victims to speak out.

"It's not just a case. It can change public perceptions and attitudes towards domestic violence," said Dorokashvili's lawyer, Ana Abashidze, who is also a women's rights campaigner.

About one in seven Georgian women has reported suffering violence at the hands of a partner, according to a 2017 study by the United Nations and Georgia's National Statistics Office, but the real number might be higher, women's rights advocates say.

Still, Tamar Dekanosidze of advocacy group Equality Now said the mere fact that one of Georgia's most popular sportsmen had been charged with domestic violence was testament to the country's progress in recent years.

"This wouldn't have been possible as recently as in 2013 or 2014, for example, when domestic violence was largely perceived as a private, domestic matter that authorities should not intervene," she said.

'PRIVATE MATTER'

Basilashvili, Georgia's most successful tennis player having won three ATP titles and more than $5 million in prize money, was briefly detained in Tbilisi on May 22 and later released on a 100,000-lari ($31,000-) bail.

Prosecutors accuse him of physically abusing his ex-wife after the pair - who divorced last year - argued the day before. The domestic violence charges he faces can be punished with up to three years in jail.

Basilashvili's lawyer did not reply to repeated requests for comment, but his legal team said in a statement in May that the allegations were "false and totally unsubstantiated". "He will prove his complete innocence," the statement said.

Georgians have been divided over the case, with many voicing support for the well-known sportsman.

Georgia's National Olympic Committee described Basilashvili as a "calm and balanced person" in a Facebook post in May and said it was "unfortunate" that his reputation had been called into question.

At the same time, the committee condemned "all forms of violence".

Women's rights campaigners noted that many Georgians blamed Dorokashvili for the alleged attack.

"In Georgia, like in all patriarchal societies, it's believed that men are generally right and if a woman is a good wife she will not be beaten by her husband," said Baia Pataraia, another local women's rights activist.

About a quarter of women and a third of men interviewed in the 2017 U.N. study said they thought it was justified for men to hit their partners under certain circumstances.

Georgia criminalised domestic violence in 2012 and made tackling the crime a priority two years later, after a record 35 women were killed, she said.

In 2018, police set up a human rights department charged with improving investigations, which have become more frequent. More than 4,500 people were charged with domestic violence in 2019 up 15% on 2018, according to police data.

The Basilashvili case could embolden more victims to come forward, the women's rights advocate Dekanosidze said:

"If Basilashvili is convicted, this will send a very strong message... that domestic violence can happen at all levels of Georgian society and it will not be tolerated irrespective of who the perpetrator or victim is." ($1 = 3.1957 laris) (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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