GEORGIA: Intimidation Sabotages Trial of Violent Priest.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 7 February 2002

The criminal trial of the violent priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his main accomplice Petre (Gia) Ivanidze failed to begin at Tbilisi's Didube-Chugureti district court for the second time on 5 February as a large crowd of Mkalavishvili's supporters packed the courtroom and intimidated those present. "There was chaos in court," the Jehovah's Witnesses' lawyer Tamaz Svanishvili told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 7 February. "Our security was not guaranteed. I have never seen anything like it in my five years as a lawyer." However, an aide to the judge hearing the case denied to Keston that security measures had been inadequate. Zaza Bokua, a clerk to Judge Ioseb Chkheidze, also denied to Keston that there had been an atmosphere of intimidation. "Order was preserved in the courtroom," he claimed.

Bokua, who told Keston the case would resume for the third time in the afternoon of 14 February, stressed that court officials had called the police to make sure they were present, and said the sole reason the judge had not proceeded with the trial was the absence of the victims. "All proper security measures were taken," he insisted. "The victims did not turn up. What else could we do?" Jehovah's Witness representatives told Keston from Tbilisi that they stayed away from the hearing as they had not received the security guarantees they had requested.

Svanishvili, the newly-engaged lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses who is not himself a Jehovah's Witness, does not believe judge Chkheidze did enough. "He should have done more to protect the security of participants. Five policemen were present but left the courtroom before the hearing started. We don't know why. Maybe they were instructed to do so."

In a statement issued after the trial, the Jehovah's Witnesses reported that about three hundred of Mkalavishvili's supporters, mostly men, armed with metal and wooden crosses, tried to invade the courtroom before the hearing began. "Many entered and occupied areas reserved for attorneys as they rang their religious bell and waved large anti-Jehovah's Witness banners. As the victims' attorneys made their way through the mob to Judge Ioseb Chkheidze's chambers, they overheard security police being ordered away from the scene. The courtroom was left with no security."

Attorneys explained to Chkheidze that under these circumstances it was impossible to proceed with the trial as it was too dangerous for the victims or their attorneys to attend, the Jehovah's Witnesses added. "Furthermore, a fair trial could not be held under such circumstances. The judge agreed and postponed the trial."

In the wake of the failed hearing, Mkalavishvili was reported to have declared that if the case was postponed a third time, he would ignore the trial. Keston was unable to reach him on 7 February either at home or on his mobile.

Jemal Kubaidze, an investigator at the city procurator who prepared the case against Mkalavishvili, told Keston from Tbilisi on 7 February that the case covers five violent incidents conducted by Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze, three against the Jehovah's Witnesses, one against the Baptists and one against the newspaper Rezonans. Asked whether he believed the pair were guilty, he responded: "If I didn't think they were guilty I wouldn't have completed the investigation and sent the case on to the court." Asked why Mkalavishvili and his accomplices have not been sentenced earlier for the violence dating back several years, he declared: "I'm not the procurator. That is a question for them. I was given the case to investigate in April 2001, I completed it and sent it to court in September, in just four months."

At the first attempt to hear the case against Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze on 25 January, the prosecutor failed to appear and the case had to be postponed (see KNS 4 February 2002).

Mkalavishvili, who was defrocked as a priest by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate in 1996, is now a priest of the Greek Old Calendarist Church under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Cyprian. Keston has been unable to contact Metropolitan Cyprian to ask what measures he has taken to prevent violence and other criminal activity by his priest or whether he intends to defrock him.

As well as the five incidents covered by the current case, Petre Balakhashvili, an investigator at the city procuracy is investigating further violent incidents. "I am looking at ten or eleven other incidents," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 7 February. "In addition, two district procuracies in Tbilisi are looking at one further incident each." Asked why only 17 or 18 of Mkalavishvili's attacks are being investigated given that there have been more than 100 in the past few years, Balakhashvili responded: "There aren't a hundred cases. Where are they? If there are facts, then a criminal case is inaugurated." He admitted that there might be other incidents on which he has not yet received evidence.

Asked when his current investigation would be completed, he declared: "I can 't say. It takes time to investigate the evidence and interview witnesses."

Meanwhile, pressure on the Georgian authorities is mounting in the wake of Mkalavishvili's raid on a Baptist warehouse at Vashlisdjvari near Tbilisi and burning of thousands of Bibles and religious books on 3 February (see KNS 4 February 2002). Metropolitan Daniil Datuashvili told Keston on 7 February that the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate had issued a statement condemning the religious violence on 4 February. "It was printed in the newspapers and a representative of the Patriarchate also appeared on television."

Georgi Tskomelidze, secretary to the Catholic bishop Giuseppe Pasotto, told Keston from Tbilisi on 6 February that Bishop Pasotto had signed the joint statement by religious leaders condemning the violence. "The Catholics, Baptists, Lutheran and Armenians have already signed," he reported, "and the Muslims and Jews also wish to sign." He said the Orthodox had declined to sign the joint statement, preferring to make their views known independently.

The raid on the Baptists was also discussed on 6 February at the regular monthly meeting of European Union (EU) ambassadors at the British Embassy in Tbilisi. "We are very concerned about the religious violence," Torben Holtze, head of the EU delegation in Georgia, told Keston from Tbilisi on 7 February, "though this latest incident is nothing new." He said that the issue is likely to be raised "at the appropriate level in the European Union and in discussions with the Georgian authorities". President Eduard Shevardnadze is due to visit Brussels in mid-March. (END)