Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Honoralbe Gordon H. Smith
Member - Helsinki Commission

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How long will the Government of Georgia allow the ugliness of unrestrained mob violence to continue? For three long years, non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities have suffered needlessly. Police continue to fail in their fundamental duty of protecting individuals from violence. Efforts by Congress, the State Department, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to move the Georgian Government to end the cycle of religious-based violence have not seen real success. While President Eduard Shevardnadze repeatedly makes statements and proclamations condemning the religious violence, more than rhetoric is needed.

One of the most recent attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses took place in the town of Kaspi. As we have seen repeated all too often, the followers of defrocked Orthodox priest Vasili Mkalavishvili crashed the convention site of Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, some Georgian politicians also chimed in beforehand, making incendiary and bigoted statements regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thugs reportedly arrived by bus, then ravaged the personal home of the individual hosting the event. Hooligans burned Bibles, religious pamphlets and the host’s personal belongings in the yard, even filling the baptismal pool with diesel fuel. Despite explicit communication from the US Embassy in Tbilisi and other human rights groups, Georgian authorities did nothing to prevent the attack or to intervene during the rampage. Reportedly, police, including the local police chief, stood and watched.

Of course, while we expect the Georgian Government to conduct a full investigation that ends with the perpetrators brought to justice, the outstanding 700 plus criminal complaints stemming from over 100 separate attacks is not encouraging. I understand that the Georgian Government is in a precarious position, and fears the unrest that might spring forth if the mob leaders and their followers are arrested. However, I believe that average Georgians would welcome the sight of police officers acting pro-actively. Rule of law is one of the most tangible benefits a government can provide its people.

As an OSCE participating State, the responsibilities of the Georgian Government toward individuals wishing to practice religion or belief are clear. The Helsinki Final Act itself declared States must “recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The 1983 Madrid Concluding Document speaks to the situation in Georgia. It declares participating States “agree to take the action necessary to ensure the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” Unfortunately for all Georgians, their government is not upholding its commitments.