GEORGIA: Rebel Priest Enjoys Immunity.

by Aleksandr Schipkov and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 February 2001

Human rights activists, religious minority leaders and Georgia's ombudsman have condemned what they believe is the impunity enjoyed by excommunicated Georgian Orthodox priest Vasily Mkalavishvili and his supporters, who are conducting a terror campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Pentecostals involving raids on meetings and the beating of participants (see separate KNS article). The deputy police chief of the Georgian capital Tbilisi refused to divulge to Keston News Service how the investigation of the case against Mkalavishvili and his supporters was proceeding or when a trial could be expected. He pointedly declined to say whether his force had a duty to protect religious minorities from such attacks and refused to specify if any concrete steps had been taken to institute such protection. A deputy city prosecutor pledged that Mkalavishvili will be brought to trial, telling Keston that `he violated social order in various cases', but revealed that so far he is only being investigated for hooliganism.

Speaking to Keston on 8 February, the deputy head of Tbilisi police, Ushangi Geladze, three times refused to say that his force would protect the Jehovah's Witnesses from further attacks. `We defend all citizens from all criminal activity,' he repeated, refusing to specify any concrete measures his force would be taking. He said a criminal case had been launched `against the group of which Mkalavishvili is a member' on charges of hooliganism, harm to people and to property. However, he declined to give details of the investigation. Geladze added that a criminal case had likewise been launched in 1999 which was investigated by the procuracy and the interior ministry. The case reached court, he declared, but said that although he knew the result `I am not able to say what it was'.

Akaki Budarashvili, first deputy city prosecutor, appeared more concerned to bring Mkalavishvili to justice, vigorously denying suggestions that he is above the law. `Everyone who breaks the law will be punished,' he told Keston on 9 February from Tbilisi. He said criminal cases had been opened against Mkalavishvili and his group on charges of hooliganism over various incidents. One was launched last year and two this year, one of them after the Mardjanishvili raid on 22 January (see separate KNS article). Asked why the charges were on such a minor offence as hooliganism when people had been beaten he responded: `The investigation is still underway. If it is established that he caused serious injuries, then there will be further charges.' He said he had not yet received official reports of the injuries sustained. Asked how long it will be before Mkalavishvili is brought to trial he declared: `A trial takes place after an investigation, which lasts for three months, but we will try to do it quicker.'

Asked why Mkalavishvili was not immediately arrested, given the serious allegations and his long-standing record of violence, Budarashvili declared: `We have to collect proof before he can be arrested. He has rights also. There is a whole group and it is difficult to identify concrete individuals and to establish guilt for concrete actions.'

In 1995 Mkalavishvili - then a Georgian Orthodox priest in Tbilisi's Gldani district - harshly criticised his Church for its membership of the World Council of Churches (it has since withdrawn), accusing Patriarch Ilia II of the 'heresy of ecumenism' and of 'aiding and abetting sectarians'. He was excommunicated, but later joined the Greek Old Calendarists under Metropolitan Kiprian.

Levan Ramishvili, a researcher at the Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, claimed in an interview with the 'Kavkas' television company on 23 January that 'Vasily has links with the interior ministry and the security agencies, who are using him to destabilise the situation to demonstrate to the world that Georgia is not yet ready for democracy'. Mkalavishvili claimed to Keston on 27 January that the people support him and that the police are part of the people. 'I have more followers than the Georgian Orthodox Church.'

At a press conference on 23 January in her office, the ombudsman Nana Devdariani condemned Mkalavishvili's continuing attacks on the Jehovah's Witnesses and others, and the disruption of the press conference the previous day to present a Jehovah's Witness petition against the continued violence (see separate KNS article). Although the head of the Tbilisi criminal police, Ushangi Mcheladze, was present, it is unclear whether the law enforcement agencies will end the reign of terror or bring Mkalavishvili and his supporters to trial. (END)