GEORGIA: Postponed Trial of Violent Priest Imminent.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 February 2002

The much-delayed trial of the violent Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his main accomplice, Petre (Gia) Ivanidze, is finally due to begin tomorrow (5 February) at 2 p.m. at the Didube-Chugureti court in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Jehovah's Witness sources in Tbilisi told Keston News Service that the previous scheduled hearing, due to have taken place on 25 January, had been postponed as the prosecutor notified Judge Ioseb Chkheidze that he was unable to appear at the time set by the court. It remains unclear whether the raid yesterday (3 February) on the Baptist Union's warehouse and burning of thousands of Bibles (see separate KNS article) was a deliberate snub to the court or simply part of Mkalavishvili' s continuing campaign against religious minorities.

Keston tried to contact Mkalavishvili on 4 February, but both his home and mobile telephones went unanswered.

At the courthouse on 25 January, Mkalavishvili had continued to rally his followers in support of his campaign. "No sooner had the session ended when Mkalavishvili and his band began verbally abusing and threatening victims present as well as their lawyers," the Jehovah's Witnesses reported. "Many of those present in the courthouse were identified by victims as having participated in mob attacks. Later Mkalavishvili and his adherents held a demonstration where religious minorities in Georgia were denounced and lavish praise heaped upon the assaults and beatings inflicted upon them."

The case against Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze covers numerous incidents in their long-running campaign which has seen more than one hundred violent attacks (see KNS 11 January 2002).

However, many remain sceptical that there is any willingness on the part of the authorities to end the reign of terror. "They keep postponing the trial and in the meantime Mkalavishvili continues to get involved with violence," Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Union told Keston from Tbilisi on 4 February.

Emil Adelkhanov of the Centre for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi told Keston that two of Mkalavishvili's representatives had visited the independent TV studio Stereo One on 25 January and tried to force it to cancel broadcasts of a daily Protestant programme. When the station refused and called the police, a crowd of Mkalavishvili's supporters besieged the station. The commercial director and one of the founders of the studio, Paata Mchedlishvili, moved the programme to a less prominent slot as a result of the pressure. "The claims are now stronger and it is the freedom of religious expression for all minority groups that is now threatened," Adelkhanov declared. (END)