GEORGIA: Supreme Court's Liquidation of the Jehovah's Witnesses Condemned.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 February 2001

A ruling by the Supreme Court to uphold the liquidation of two Jehovah's Witness organisations has been condemned by human rights activists and Jehovah's Witness leaders, as well as several senior politicians including the Justice Minister, Mikheil Saakashvili. `From a legal standpoint the decision is very dubious,' he declared. `I don't think it's the most successful page in the history of the Supreme Court.' The acting chairman of the parliamentary legal committee described the ruling to Keston News Service as `very bad', while the head of the Liberty Institute, a human rights group in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, condemned the ruling which, he told Keston, `violates the constitution and laws'.

The ruling - issued on 22 February - cannot be appealed and the Jehovah's Witnesses are considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to which - as a member of the Council of Europe - Georgia is subject. Interviewed on Georgian television in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Saakashvili said that if the Jehovah's Witnesses took their case to Strasbourg they would win, something Georgia would be ashamed of forever.

Although the Supreme Court revoked the 1998 registration under the civil code of two Jehovah's Witness entities, both the court and the Jehovah's Witnesses stress the move does not render their activity illegal, as religious organisations do not require registration in Georgia. Indeed, these were the only religious organisations with such registration (although some religious groups are registered as social organisations).

Nevertheless, many believe the aim is to suppress Jehovah's Witness activity in the country, where they claim a membership of 15,000. Speaking to Keston on 23 February from Tbilisi, Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute described the case as `politically motivated' and suggested that the chairman of the Supreme Court, Lado Chanturia, who is rumoured to be considering running for president, might be seeking populist support.

He believed the ruling was questionable on legal grounds. `Under the constitution and civil code, a non-profit organisation's registration can be revoked only if it begins commercial activity or its activities harm territorial integrity or national security.' He added that only the Ministry of Justice is empowered to initiate liquidation proceedings, not a private individual. `There was not the correct plaintiff.'

Zurab Adeishvili, acting chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, told Keston from Tbilisi on 23 February he was `very concerned' about the ruling, which `reduces religious liberty in Georgia because it encourages extremist forces in our [Georgian Orthodox] Church to suppress religious minority groups'. He complained the Supreme Court had bowed to public opinion `which supports extremist forces' rather than taking an independent view based on the law.

Despite the court's emphatic statements that the ruling does not mean the group's religious activity is illegal, Jehovah's Witness lawyer Mamuka Chabashvili is concerned some may misinterpret the ruling. `The decision is based on a legal technicality regarding registration,' he declared on 22 February. `Jehovah's Witnesses are not banned. Under the Constitution, they have the right to hold meetings and import religious literature. Anyone interfering with those rights will be liable to prosecution.'

The case was launched by a parliamentary deputy from the Georgia Above All party, Guram Sharadze, but his suit was rejected by a district court in February 2000. However, Tbilisi city court last June overturned this decision on appeal (see KNS 7 July 2000), leading to the Jehovah's Witnesses' challenge to the Supreme Court. In a Keston interview last year, Sharadze insisted the group's literature was anti-state and anti-Orthodox and that their registration was illegal.

In argument before the Supreme Court, Sharadze pretended he was not seeking a ban on the group, only that their legal registration be annulled. However, his lawyer admitted he had influenced authorities in the towns of Zugdidi and Marneuli to prevent the holding of two Jehovah's Witness conventions last September. This resulted in mob violence against Witnesses and looting of their personal property and homes.

In their condemnation, other religious minority leaders pointed to the impact of the ruling not only on their own communities. Malkhaz Songulashvili, presiding bishop of the Baptist Union, described the ruling as `very dangerous for the minority faiths and for the mainstream Orthodox Church'. He told Keston on 26 February it would put the Orthodox Church in an embarrassing position as the Orthodox could be seen to support religious intolerance. He pointed out that defrocked Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili - who has led a brutal campaign against religious minorities (see KNS 9 February 2001) – has never been condemned by the Orthodox Church.

Mkalavishvili declared openly on television in the wake of the ruling that now he has dealt with the Jehovah's Witnesses the time has come to deal with the Baptists and other minority faiths.

Adeishvili believes the ruling will make it more difficult to achieve a law on freedom of conscience to guarantee the independence of religious minorities (Georgia is the only former Soviet republic without a religion law). `We intend to present a bill we have drawn up with the Liberty Institute,' he told Keston. `It is difficult to protect minority groups now. They are more repressed than national minorities,' he noted sadly.

Ramishvili agrees. `The last two years have seen massive violations against religious minorities, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Catholics. There is evidence the Interior Ministry and Sharadze are backing the extremists.' He attributes such attacks to an attempt to find scapegoats for worsening poverty, unemployment and energy shortages. (END)