(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission Members today expressed outrage over the latest round of courtroom violence in the Republic of Georgia where mob leaders are on trial for violent attacks against members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Over the past three years, mob violence against non-Orthodox religious minorities has escalated, while the Georgian Government has proven ineffective in ending the attacks and prosecute the perpetrators.
Excommunicated Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his lieutenant Petre (Gia) Ivanidze are on trial for one of their mob attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similar attacks have also been directed against Baptists, Catholics and Pentecostals. Last week, while the judge and courtroom police watched, a large number of protesters entered the Tbilisi courtroom, then physically and verbally assaulted international observers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their attorneys. The assailants are believed to be Mkalavishvili’s followers.
"Considering the uncontrolled violence, Georgian authorities should protect innocent citizens and take into custody Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze until the conclusion of the criminal trial. I am appalled that authorities would yet again allow the victims of violence to suffer at the hands of their persecutors, in a courtroom no less," said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). "It appears that the Georgian Government has reneged on its commitment to enforce the law, despite President Eduard Shevardnadze's pleas for tolerance and pledges to prosecute criminals."
Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), added that repeated government pledges have become difficult to believe, considering the disconnect between the statements of Georgian leaders and the ongoing violence. "To reestablish credibility, the courtroom must be run with decorum, the accused must remain under state custody, the judge must stop frivolous delays, and the prosecutor must vigorously prosecute those accused of inciting mob violence."
During an ecumenical service at Tbilisi’s Central Baptist Church in March, President Shevardnadze promised that "the aggressors will be brought to justice." However, excessive delays, courtroom violence, and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct have marred the criminal proceedings which began more than 12 months ago.
"The United States Congress remains a great friend of Georgia," said Commissioner Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN). "But, the Georgian Government is pushing this friend away by allowing such rampant violence. As a Member of the House Appropriations Committee, I am obligated to take into consideration the progress Georgia has made on protecting religious freedom."
Commissioner Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) agreed, suggesting that authorities must provide adequate security at the next court hearing on May 12th. "The victims must be assured that authorities will limit the number of Mkalavishvili’s followers and that police will arrest anyone making intimidating or threatening gestures in the courtroom."
"Unlike the presiding judge, courtroom police and the Georgian Government, Members of Congress will not sit idly by while criminals perpetrate more violence against members of religious groups," Smith concluded. "If one cannot expect safety in a courtroom, these hateful thugs have derailed the justice system."
Despite overwhelming evidence documenting numerous attacks against minority religious groups, neither Mkalavishvili nor any of his followers have been convicted of a criminal offense relating to their acts of violence. When forced to go into recess, the most recent hearing on Tuesday, April 29th, represented the 19th delay.
Mkalavishvili’s trial stands in contrast to that of another alleged mob leader, Paata Bluashvili, head of the extremist Jvari organization. Bluashvili’s trial has moved forward, with courtroom conduct described by some observers as "better controlled."
However, on May 4th, a mob prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from meeting in the village of Ortasheni, since local police refused to protect the gathering. In addition, customs officials have seized on spurious grounds roughly 20 tons of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature.
As a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Republic of Georgia is committed to ensuring religious freedom and protecting all persons from violence.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and 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.