GEORGIA: Will Violent Priest At Last Be Brought to Justice?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 October 2002

Government ministers have separately assured both the Jehovah's Witnesses and U.S. officials and diplomats that adequate security will be provided in the courtroom on 25 October, when violent True Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili is again set to be brought to trial, Keston News Service has learnt. Mkalavishvili, who is responsible for many of the more than a hundred attacks on religious minorities in the past three years that have left believers with serious injuries and places of worship and homes destroyed, has so far gone unpunished.

"The first deputy interior minister Avtandil Chkhaidze promised visiting officials of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and myself on 16 October that adequate security will be provided inside and around the courthouse," Matthew Christ, human rights officer at the United States embassy in Tbilisi, told Keston News Service from the Georgian capital on 22 October. "However, he could not give any guarantees that there wouldn't be demonstrations outside on the streets." Christ added that officials of the National Security Council gave the U.S. delegation similar assurances about security in the court.

Reached by Keston on 22 October, Kaha Imnadze, spokesman for President Eduard Shevardnadze, said he would not comment on the forthcoming trial. "The case is in court, so it would not be right to interfere."

Mkalavishvili's trial, which began on 25 January but was postponed five times, will resume at 11 am on 25 October in Tbilisi's Didube-Chugureti District Court. "The trial will begin from scratch - it never actually got going before," Gennady Gudadze, Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Georgia, told Keston from Tbilisi on 22 October. He said prosecutors have combined five cases into one, three relating to attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses in January and February 2001 (including an attack on the office of Georgia's ombudsman in January 2001 during which a petition against the religious violence was burnt), one relating to an attack on the Baptists in February 2002 when Bibles were burnt and the last an attack on the editorial offices of the newspaper Rezonansi. Mkalavishvili faces charges under articles 120 (causing light injuries), 125 (beatings), 155 (illegally hindering religious activity), 226 (hooliganism) and 256 (persecution) of the Criminal Code.

Authorities postponed the case on previous occasions after Mkalavishvili's mob entered the courtroom and attacked victims, lawyers and international observers (see KNS 7 February 2002). In contrast to the inadequate protection provided at these hearings, more than 200 police, including an elite squad, were present in court to defend interior ministry officials in a separate case against Mkalavishvili.

Gudadze was optimistic that officials mean what they say about guaranteeing courtroom security. "At earlier hearings there were only four or five policemen present. Given that senior officials have made these promises it is more likely that they will be kept." He said eight Jehovah's Witnesses who have been recognised in the case as victims would take part in the hearings. He added that the Tbilisi office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had promised to send observers to the trial. Christ from the U.S. embassy also told Keston that he would be present in court.

Equally optimistic was Mikhail Saralishvili, office manager for the Bible Society who witnessed the attack on the Baptist warehouse earlier this year and was among those beaten by the mob. "I hope it will go ahead whether the mob is there or not," he told Keston on 22 October. "I received my invitation to participate in the hearing today and I will be there."

However, others are less sure, given the long history of immunity that Mkalavishvili and other Orthodox extremists have enjoyed during their reign of terror (see KNS 8 July 2002). "Officials always pledge that security will be guaranteed, but never follow it through," Levan Ramishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based human rights group the Liberty Institute, told Keston on 22 October. "I do not expect anything from this trial - I expect it will be postponed again." He said the international community should take stronger action against Georgia to force it to stamp out violence against religious minorities. "Words aren't enough - they won't help the victims." (The Liberty Institute was itself ransacked by religious extremists in July in retaliation for its support for religious minorities - see KNS 12 July 2002.)

Victims of Mkalavishvili's attacks have filed more than 700 criminal complaints, but prosecutors have mostly failed to launch criminal proceedings, leaving the perpetrators free to repeat their attacks. Individuals have reportedly been dragged by their hair into a group, then pummelled with punches, kicks and clubs. Police have stopped buses of Jehovah's Witnesses, allowing Mkalavishvili's followers to attack passengers travelling to Jehovah's Witness meetings. A mob attacked a Pentecostal Church during choir practice, injuring 12 people during the raid. Local television stations often receive advanced notice of the attacks, then broadcast footage of the attacks on the evening news. Gudadze told Keston that the Jehovah's Witnesses have brought 33 cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which Georgia is subject as a member of the Council of Europe. He said the court will deal with 32 of them - concerning the authorities' failure to punish those responsible for the violence - in one case. The other concerns the authorities' decision to cancel the official registration of two Jehovah's Witness entities in Georgia. The Court has agreed to hear them under an accelerated procedure.

Within Georgia, Mkalavishvili - who is now a priest under the jurisdiction of Greek Old Calendarist Metropolitan Cyprian - has strong political and religious support. At the beginning of October, Guram Getsadze announced the formation of a political group Orthodoxy, which will support "traditional Georgian Orthodoxy". Getsadze told a press conference in Tbilisi that he backs Mkalavishvili and his "battle with sectarians". Other Orthodox groups, such as Jvari, have joined in violence against religious minorities. One Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Atanase Chakhvashvili, who is based in the town of Rustavi south east of Tbilisi, declared on television in February that all "sectarians" in Georgia should be "killed" (see KNS 13 February 2002), though he later retracted his remarks. (END)