GEORGIA: OSCE Condemns Attackers' Impunity.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 September 2001

In the wake of the attack by defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his supporters on a choir practice of a Pentecostal church in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on 23 September (see separate KNS article) and a demonstration the following day in central Tbilisi where he pledged to begin a new campaign against all non-Orthodox religious groups in Georgia, the Tbilisi office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has condemned the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such violence. Approximately 100 violent attacks on religious minority meetings have taken place over the past few years and human rights activists warn that such attacks might be stepped up.

 'We have repeatedly reported on such incidents - this is one of our major concerns,' Volker Jacoby, human dimension officer at the Tbilisi office of the OSCE, told Keston by telephone on 26 September. 'This issue has been raised a number of times at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna.' He said the OSCE is sceptical about the government's professed commitment to halt the violence against religious minorities. 'We have particularly pointed to the apparent impunity of the perpetrators which creates a climate of tacit approval,' Jacoby told Keston. 'Official statements from the president, parliament and the Orthodox Patriarchate are thus deprived of credibility.'

There are suggestions that Mkalavishvili, who has been barred from going near Jehovah's Witness meetings, is leaving attacks on them to his followers, while personally taking part in attacks on other minority faiths. 'While the criminal case against him is being investigated, he has been asked to stay away from the proximity of Jehovah's Witness meetings,' Jacoby declared. 'He has now shifted his activity to other minorities.'

Mkalavishvili has been unapologetic about his involvement in raids on minority religious communities, insisting they are necessary to protect Georgians from 'Satanists'. Speaking to Keston on 19 September at the construction site of his church on the outskirts of Tbilisi, he said that he tried to stop the activities of only those who 'go around the streets slandering the Orthodox faith'. He maintained that he therefore had no issue with 'Catholics, Jews, Monophysites or Muslims'.

Mkalavishvili was one of the key speakers at a rally on Tbilisi's central Rustaveli Avenue on 24 September attended by about 100 people, where threats against religious minorities were issued. 'Both Sunday's attack and Monday's demonstration were organised by the police and the security ministry,' declared Tamar Kintsurashvili of the Tbilisi-based human rights organisation, the Liberty Institute. 'You can't march up Rustaveli Avenue without official permission. The police organised the buses to bring in the demonstrators.' She believed the demonstration was linked to what she regarded as the rise of the anti-reformist wing in the government and the resignation of the reformist justice minister Mikheil Saakishvili. 'It is connected with political processes. They want to draw attention away from corruption and unemployment towards religious problems. The interests of the police and Basil Mkalavishvili coincide.'

The deputy head of Tbilisi police, who declined to give his name, told Keston by telephone on 26 September he was unaware of the attack on the Pentecostal choir practice and refused to discuss why Mkalavishvili has not been arrested for his attacks on religious minorities and journalists. He confirmed only that a criminal case is 'under investigation' by the police and the procuracy before putting the phone down.

An official at the Georgian general procuracy, who refused to give his name, told Keston on 26 September that his office had launched no investigation into Mkalavishvili or his followers. No official was available at the Tbilisi city procuracy on 26 September.

On 16 March the Procurator General of Georgia reportedly issued an instruction for an investigation to be carried out by Tbilisi city procuracy into allegations of violence by Mkalavishvili. Last year Georgia pointed out in its second periodic report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee the provisions of the Criminal Code which guarantee protection of freedom of conscience, including penalties for unlawfully disturbing religious services or the performance of any other religious rites by violence or the threat thereof, or for insulting religious feelings of believers or ministers of religion.

'However, to our knowledge there have yet to be any successful prosecutions of those alleged to be responsible for the catalogue of assaults, under these provisions, let alone other provisions regarding physical assault, in spite of extensive eye-witness and video evidence, and despite numerous complaints being lodged with the appropriate authorities by victims of the attacks,' the human rights group Amnesty International reported. Liberty Institute has questioned why none of Mkalavishvili's accomplices is even being investigated.

Liberty Institute lodged a case against the city procuracy on 8 August, claiming that its refusal to give out information about the case against Mkalavishvili violated the new administrative code, which requires officials to give out requested information unless it is a state or commercial secret. No date for the hearing has yet been set.

The Gldani congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses has lodged a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (application no. 71156/01) over the very first attack on the congregation in 1999, for which no-one has yet been brought to account. The ECHR agreed on 2 July that the case should be given priority. (END)