KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 26 February 2001

I. GEORGIA: CONDEMNATION OF SUPREME COURT LIQUIDATION
OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES. A ruling by the Supreme Court to uphold
the liquidation of two Jehovah's Witness organisations has been condemned
by human rights activists and Jehovah's Witness leaders, as well as several
senior politicians including the Justice Minister. Some fear it will encourage
religious extremists to suppress minority groups. The Minister pronounced
the decision �dubious� and said that if the Jehovah's Witnesses took their
case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg they would win.

II. TURKMENISTAN: BAPTIST PROTESTS ABOUT KNB RAID. A
Baptist in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi has written to the city
prosecutor to complain about the confiscation from her home of religious
books by officers of Turkmenistan's political police, the KNB (former
KGB). In her letter - a copy of which was passed to Keston News Service by
the US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries - O. M. Dvornikova calls on
the prosecutor to ensure an end to such actions.

I. GEORGIA: CONDEMNATION OF SUPREME COURT LIQUIDATION
OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A ruling by the Supreme Court to uphold the liquidation of two Jehovah's
Witness organisations has been condemned by human rights activists and
Jehovah's Witness leaders, as well as several senior politicians including the
Justice Minister, Mikheil Saakashvili. `From a legal standpoint the decision
is very dubious,' he declared. `I don't think it's the most successful page in
the history of the Supreme Court.' The acting chairman of the parliamentary
legal committee described the ruling to Keston News Service as `very bad',
while the head of the Liberty Institute, a human rights group in the Georgian
capital Tbilisi, condemned the ruling which, he told Keston, `violates the
constitution and laws'.

The ruling - issued on 22 February - cannot be appealed and the Jehovah's
Witnesses are considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights
in Strasbourg to which - as a member of the Council of Europe - Georgia is
subject. Interviewed on Georgian television in the immediate aftermath of
the ruling, Saakashvili said that if the Jehovah's Witnesses took their case to
Strasbourg they would win, something Georgia would be ashamed of
forever.

Although the Supreme Court revoked the 1998 registration under the civil
code of two Jehovah's Witness entities, both the court and the Jehovah's
Witnesses stress the move does not render their activity illegal, as religious
organisations do not require registration in Georgia. Indeed, these were the
only religious organisations with such registration (although some religious
groups are registered as social organisations).

Nevertheless, many believe the aim is to suppress Jehovah's Witness activity
in the country, where they claim a membership of 15,000. Speaking to
Keston on 23 February from Tbilisi, Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty
Institute described the case as `politically motivated' and suggested that the
chairman of the Supreme Court, Lado Chanturia, who is rumoured to be
considering running for president, might be seeking populist support.

He believed the ruling was questionable on legal grounds. `Under the
constitution and civil code, a non-profit organisation's registration can be
revoked only if it begins commercial activity or its activities harm territorial
integrity or national security.' He added that only the Ministry of Justice is
empowered to initiate liquidation proceedings, not a private individual.
`There was not the correct plaintiff.'

Zurab Adeishvili, acting chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, told
Keston from Tbilisi on 23 February he was `very concerned' about the
ruling, which `reduces religious liberty in Georgia because it encourages
extremist forces in our [Georgian Orthodox] Church to suppress religious
minority groups'. He complained the Supreme Court had bowed to public
opinion `which supports extremist forces' rather than taking an independent
view based on the law.

Despite the court's emphatic statements that the ruling does not mean the
group's religious activity is illegal, Jehovah's Witness lawyer Mamuka
Chabashvili is concerned some may misinterpret the ruling. `The decision is
based on a legal technicality regarding registration,' he declared on 22
February. `Jehovah's Witnesses are not banned. Under the Constitution, they
have the right to hold meetings and import religious literature. Anyone
interfering with those rights will be liable to prosecution.'

The case was launched by a parliamentary deputy from the Georgia Above
All party, Guram Sharadze, but his suit was rejected by a district court in
February 2000. However, Tbilisi city court last June overturned this decision
on appeal (see KNS 7 July 2000), leading to the Jehovah's Witnesses'
challenge to the Supreme Court. In a Keston interview last year, Sharadze
insisted the group's literature was anti-state and anti-Orthodox and that their
registration was illegal.

In argument before the Supreme Court, Sharadze pretended he was not
seeking a ban on the group, only that their legal registration be annulled.
However, his lawyer admitted he had influenced authorities in the towns of
Zugdidi and Marneuli to prevent the holding of two Jehovah's Witness
conventions last September. This resulted in mob violence against Witnesses
and looting of their personal property and homes.

In their condemnation, other religious minority leaders pointed to the impact
of the ruling not only on their own communities. Malkhaz Songulashvili,
presiding bishop of the Baptist Union, described the ruling as `very
dangerous for the minority faiths and for the mainstream Orthodox Church'.
He told Keston on 26 February it would put the Orthodox Church in an
embarrassing position as the Orthodox could be seen to support religious
intolerance. He pointed out that defrocked Orthodox priest Vasili
Mkalavishvili - who has led a brutal campaign against religious minorities
(see KNS 9 February 2001) � has never been condemned by the Orthodox
Church.

Mkalavishvili declared openly on television in the wake of the ruling that
now he has dealt with the Jehovah's Witnesses the time has come to deal
with the Baptists and other minority faiths.

Adeishvili believes the ruling will make it more difficult to achieve a law on
freedom of conscience to guarantee the independence of religious minorities
(Georgia is the only former Soviet republic without a religion law). `We
intend to present a bill we have drawn up with the Liberty Institute,' he told
Keston. `It is difficult to protect minority groups now. They are more
repressed than national minorities,' he noted sadly.

Ramishvili agrees. `The last two years have seen massive violations against
religious minorities, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Evangelicals,
Pentecostals and Catholics. There is evidence the Interior Ministry and
Sharadze are backing the extremists.' He attributes such attacks to an attempt
to find scapegoats for worsening poverty, unemployment and energy
shortages. (END)

II. TURKMENISTAN: BAPTIST PROTESTS ABOUT KNB RAID

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A Baptist in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi has written to the city
prosecutor to complain about a raid on her home by officers of
Turkmenistan's political police, the KNB (former KGB), during which
religious books were confiscated without an official record being drawn up
or an explanation being given. In her letter - a copy of which was passed to
Keston News Service by the US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries - O.
M. Dvornikova calls on the prosecutor to ensure an end to such actions. `I
appeal to you to take the necessary measures against the unlawful actions of
the KNB agents,' Dvornikova wrote on 22 February, `since their actions
violate Turkmenistan's law on freedom of conscience and religious
organisations (article 20, part 1) and the law on the prohibition of searches in
the houses of Turkmen citizens.'

Keston has been unable to obtain the telephone number of the KNB in
Turkmenbashi to find out why Dvornikova's flat was raided or of the city
prosecutor to find out what action he will take to investigate the raid and
prevent further such raids.

Dvornikova reports that in the afternoon of 21 February she received a visit
from two men claiming they were from the fire department, although they
presented no identification papers. `Initially they went to the kitchen area, as
if to check whether there is any supplementary gas heating equipment.
Afterwards they went to the balcony where, upon seeing my personal
literature with religious content, they presented their papers, those of KNB
agents, and announced the confiscation of this literature.' They loaded the
literature into their car. `They did not present any documents permitting the
confiscation,' Dvornikova complained to the prosecutor. `No official record
was drawn up.' The two men then left, but ten minutes later someone rang
the doorbell again. The two men were there with a third, identified by
Dvornikova as KNB agent Ischanov, but she declined to open the door.

Dvornikova is a member of the Turkmenbashi Baptist congregation, which
belongs to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a
group heavily persecuted in Turkmenistan in recent years. Churches have
been raided and believers detained, beaten, fined and deported. One member
of the Turkmenbashi congregation, Shageldy Atakov, is in poor health in
prison hospital in Mary after being subjected to repeated beatings and
forcible treatment with psychotropic drugs in labour camp (see KNS 21
February 2001). He is serving a four year sentence on charges the Baptists
believe have been fabricated to punish him for his activity with the church.
(END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.