(Washington) - Continued violence against religious minorities in the Republic of Georgia has prompted United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) to urge Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze to uphold human rights and respect the rule of law.
Religious freedom and the rule of law in Georgia have been jeopardized by a constant barrage of violent attacks on church congregations and the government’s unwillingness to enforce the law by holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Violence against minority religious groups, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, has escalated over the past three years.
The Helsinki Commission held a hearing September 24 to examine democracy, human rights and security developments in the former Soviet Republic. Georgian Ambassador Levan Mikeladze testified at the hearing that legal and practical actions were being taken to ensure an end to future violence.
“Unfortunately, since the...hearing, several more violent attacks occurred,” Smith said. “Alarmingly, on September 26, in the village of Napareuli, masked men with firearms burst into a private home where religious meetings were being held, reportedly beating those in attendance and ransacking the house. Most striking, eyewitnesses claim the attack was led by the village administrator, Mr. Nodar Paradashvili, who beat one of the victims into unconsciousness.”
Defrocked Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili has led many attacks against non-Orthodox groups, disrupting worship services and other religious activities among members of minority faiths. Mkalavishvili will go on trial October 25 in the Didube-Chugureti District Court. His criminal trial began January 25th, but the charges against him are minor. Authorities postponed the case five times, due to Mkalavishvili’s mob entering the courtroom and assailing victims, lawyers and international observers.
Only ten police were permitted to guard victims and their lawyers during Mkalavishvili’s previous trial. Ministry of Interior officials, however, were afforded the protection of more than 200 officers and a SWAT team when Mkalavishvili was previously tried on different charges.
Officials from Georgia’s National Security Council and Ministry of Interior assured Helsinki Commission staff in meetings last week that police would provide enough personnel in the Didube-Chugureti District Court to conduct a proper trial. “Considering the numerous trial delays in this case due to Mkalavishvili's mob crashing into the courtroom, I welcome this commitment,” Smith said.
Increasingly concerned about the Georgian Government’s unwillingness to squelch the violence and jail the perpetrators, Smith said Mkalavishvili’s trial will be a prime opportunity for Georgia to uphold human rights and the rule of law. He urged Shevardnadze to ensure proper decorum during the trial by assigning a respectable number of law enforcement agents to the court proceedings. Providing a significant police presence at the trial “would convey clearly that the violence will not be tolerated and your government’s commitment to have the judicial process proceed.”
“Mr. President, as a Representative in the United States Congress for over 20 years, I deeply value the friendship of the Georgian Government and people,” Smith continued. “I respectfully urge that everything possible be done to ensure proper conduct of the upcoming trial and that future prosecutions of violent criminals be conducted under rule of law norms.”
Spearheaded by Helsinki Commission leaders, 15 Members of Congress wrote to Shevardnadze in May urging him to ensure an end to the increasing violence against minority religious groups. The Members pressed Shevardnadze to “take concrete steps to provide for the security of all Georgians without distinction as to religion.”
For more than two years, violent mobs have attacked members of various non-Orthodox religious communities while police allegedly participate in the attacks or simply refuse to intervene. Organized mobs have brutally attacked minority religious groups with increasing frequency since 1999. The mobs often targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mkalavishvili’s followers have allegedly targeted other religious groups, including a Pentecostal church, an Evangelical Church, and a warehouse owned by the Baptist Union.
Victims have filed more than 700 criminal complaints, but authorities have not responded, leaving the perpetrators free to repeat their attacks. Individuals have reportedly been dragged by their hair into a group, then pummeled with punches, kicks and clubs. Police have stopped buses of Jehovah’s Witnesses, allowing Mkalavishvili’s mobsters to attack passengers participating in church activities. 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 the episodes on the evening news.
While civil society has grown substantially, the media and non-governmental organizations remain at risk. The savage attack on the human rights organization, Liberty Institute, like the campaign of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority faiths, as well as efforts to silence Rustavi-2 Television, testify to the lingering influence of forces bent on preventing Georgia from consolidating democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.