GEORGIA: Violence Continues Despite Case Against Perpetrators.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 March 2001

Despite the case being prepared by the Tbilisi procuracy against defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili (see KNS 23 March 2001), violence against religious minorities continues. Keston News Service has learned from Jehovah’s Witness sources in Georgia of three attacks since the General Prosecutor ordered the case to be brought on 16 March.

On 27 March a mob of 30 men led by one identified by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an Orthodox priest, Father Teimuraz, broke up a meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses in the town of Rustavi south of the capital Tbilisi, ransacking the private home where they were gathered. The men destroyed equipment, threw personal property out of the windows, and stole 300 lari (145 US$ 100 GBP) and the deed to the home. Police stood and watched as the thieves made off with personal property. ‘This mob broke into my home and demolished it in broad daylight,’ said the owner, Jimsher Gogelashvili. ‘The police obviously approve and are authorised to ignore such violence’.

On 28 March around 20 men gathered in an open-air public market and set fire to Jehovah’s Witness literature. Five of the men were identified as the ones who had broken up the meeting the previous day. Police declined to intervene in the book-burning.

The same sources said that on 16 March Mkalavishvili and a mob of his followers seized several thousand Jehovah’s Witness brochures from a printing works located in the Samto Chemical building in Tbilisi and burned them publicly outside the building. Rustavi 2 TV reported that police stood by and watched, making no attempt to intervene. Only after the literature was completely burned did police alert the fire department. In a live television broadcast that same evening, the sources report, Mkalavishvili renewed his threats of violence against Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities.

To date, the government has ignored all internal and international pleas to put a stop to the violence, including a petition signed by over 130,000 Georgian citizens. ‘It is evident that certain Orthodox priests in the country view the inaction on the part of the government as a signal that attacks on religious minorities are acceptable,’ stated Inga Geliashvili, lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses. ‘Both the government and the [Orthodox] Church say they condemn such violence, but neither take any action whatsoever to stop it’.

Gia Sulkhanishvili, counsellor at the Georgian Embassy in London, told Keston by telephone on 28 March that the religious violence is 'a sad story' and is 'very embarrassing for the Georgian government - and it has now begun to realise it'. He reported that on 27 March the justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili had condemned the violence in televised remarks. He added that his embassy had received a lot of letters about why Mkalavishvili and his supporters were not arrested and the violence halted, and the embassy had enquired of the government in Tbilisi, though it was waiting for a response. 'We have written to ask why one radical extremist can take the law into his own hands.' (END)