Title

Title

Georgian Government Complicity in Mob Violence against Minority Religious Groups
Friday, May 03, 2002

By H. Knox Thames, CSCE Counsel

Over the past two years, mob violence against minority religious groups has plagued the Republic of Georgia, a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since 1992. A country of five million people, Georgia has seen more than its share of sectarian violence, as individuals propagating religious chauvinism conduct a campaign of brutality against other religious communities. Adding to this, police units have reportedly participated in violence against minority religious groups, or have failed to respond to attacks in an adequate fashion. As a result, a number of minority religious communities remain at risk in Georgia today as depredations continue with impunity.

As an OSCE participating State, Georgia pledged to uphold freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all individuals, without distinction. As stated in the 1983 Madrid Concluding Document, 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.”

Since 1999, organized mob brutality against minority religious groups has gradually escalated, with the Jehovah’s Witnesses being a repeated target. As stated by the Department of State’s 2001 International Religious Freedom Report, local “police and security officials at times harassed nontraditional religious minority groups and were complicit or failed to respond to attacks by Orthodox extremists against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other nontraditional religious minorities.” Despite the inability of Georgian authorities to incarcerate the perpetrators, the 1995 Georgian Constitution does guarantee protection.

Despite constitutional protections, over the past two years, approximately 80 attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken place, mostly led by Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, and Paata Bluashvili, the director of the Orthodox “Jvari” Union. While victims have filed more than 700 criminal complaints, the authorities have not responded, leaving the perpetrators free to repeat their attacks.

Reports give startling examples of individuals being dragged by their hair into a group, only to be pummeled with punches, kicks and clubs. Buses taking Jehovah’s Witnesses to various events have been stopped by police, and then attacked by Mkalavishvili’s and Bluashvili’s mob. In September 2001, Bluashvili led an attack during a Jehovah’s Witness religious service, with some of his militants brandishing firearms. In addition, Mkalavishvili, viewing himself as a pugilist defending Georgian Christianity, reportedly declared Jehovah’s Witnesses “should be shot, we must annihilate them.”

Soon thereafter, with the violence steadily increasing and the government declining to intervene, Jehovah’s Witnesses conducted their activities in private, and for four months no violence occurred. However, in April of this year, that calm was shattered when Mkalavishvili’s and Bluashvili’s mob attacked on two separate occasions private homes that were hosting meetings. Considering the brutality Mkalavishvili and Bluashvili have displayed, it is astonishing that to date no fatalities have occurred.

While the Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of these attacks, other minority religious communities have also suffered under this vigilantism. Last year, during choir practice of a Pentecostal church, Mkalavishvili’s militants raided the building, seriously injuring twelve church members. A mob exceeding 100 hooligans targeted an Evangelical church two days before Christmas 2001, clubbing members and stealing property. In February of this year, Mkalavishvili’s mob tried to raze a warehouse owned by the Baptist Union, burning Bibles and religious materials. Mkalavishvili organized approximately 150 followers in three buses to accomplish this goal. In addition, Mkalavishvili has targeted the offices of government ombudswoman Nana Devdariani, the Tbilisi based NGO Liberty Institute, and the Rezonansi newspaper. The police have consistently refused to restrain the attackers, with only a few exceptions to note.

Unfortunately, the judicial system has proven equally inept. On January 25th, prosecutors commenced legal proceedings against Mkalavishvili and one of his lieutenants for two mob attacks, although the minor charges brought do not reflect the gravity of their crimes. Yet, since the first hearing, the commitment of Georgian officials to vigorously prosecute Mkalavishvili has been evanescent. The case has been postponed five times, most recently due to the prosecutor failing to appear. These delays can be attributed to Mkalavishvili’s mob, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, maintaining a menacing presence both outside and inside the Didube-Chugureti District Court. At several hearings, large numbers have crashed into the court while carrying wooden and iron crosses, as well as banners with offensive slogans. Obviously feeling immune from government action, Mkalavishvili has used the courtroom itself as a platform, reportedly threatening lawyers and victims through a megaphone. Evidence of these events is readily available as local television stations are usually tipped in advance, airing footage of the attacks and interviews of Mkalavishvili and Bluashvili on the nightly news.

Despite fervent appeals by victims and their lawyers, the police have refused to provide adequate courtroom security. Attorneys for the victims even petitioned the court for assistance, only for the judge to decide no more than 10 police officers would be permitted. Inexcusably, the judge put no limit on the number of Mkalavishvili’s followers granted access to the courtroom. In a stark contradiction, more than 200 police and a SWAT team were ordered to protect officials from the Ministry of Interior when Mkalavishvili was brought to trial under different charges.

In sum, the Georgian Government is proving ineffective in ameliorating the situation and protecting its citizens, regardless of their religious faith, from mob violence. Meanwhile, President Eduard Shevardnadze has held meetings with faith communities to demonstrate religious tolerance.

He has also issued a presidential decree calling for the Ministry of Interior to take action, but by allowing lawless bands of militants to attack peaceful gatherings, his illusory actions are speaking louder than his words. By allowing the strength of the police and judicial systems to become a farce, it will only further encourage contravention of Georgian laws. However, despite actions demonstrated to date, the Georgian Government can end the attacks and bring to justice the perpetrators of this brutality.

Relevant countries: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

    Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

  • Racial Justice and the Helsinki Commission

    The Helsinki Commission has long supported racial justice in the United States and worldwide through its commitment to champion the tenets of the Helsinki Final Act, which states “. . . for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The commission promotes understanding of critical issues including minority rights, anti-Semitism, discrimination against Roma, and racism through hearings, briefings, events, legislation, and other initiatives. In 2020, the commission launched a series entitled "Human Rights at Home" that gathered the testimony of subject matter experts through public hearings on the current human rights situation in the United States and the U.S. commitment to adhere to its promises as an OSCE participating State. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and other commissioners including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance Senator Ben Cardin regularly introduce and support legislation addressing diversity, inclusion, and racial justice issues in the United States and abroad. For example, the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 requires national security agencies to publicly report diversity and inclusion efforts; the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019 establishes a “U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide;” and the LITE Act strengthens partnerships with U.S. allies, protects democratic institutions, and supports transatlantic leadership.   Through statements, articles, reports, and podcasts, the commission explores and comments on discrimination, intolerance, and racial justice. The commission also enlists and engages with diverse leaders across the OSCE region through initiatives like the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN). Hearings, Briefings, and Events Legislative Initiatives Articles and Reports Statements and Speeches Political Participation and Leadership "Helsinki on the Hill" Podcast Series In the News Hearings, Briefings, and Events Hearings 2020 Human Rights at Home: Values Made Visible Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership 2019 Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership The State of Diversity and Inclusion in Europe Responding to Hate 2012 The Escalation of Violence Against Roma in Europe 2008 Racism in the 21st Century: Understanding Global Challenges and Implementing Solutions The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future The Challenges to Minority Communities in Kosovo 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE 2002 Romani Human Rights: Old Problems, New Possibilities 2000 Human Rights of the Romani Minority  1998 Romani Human Rights in Europe Briefings 2020 8:46 (George Floyd) 2019 Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing 2018 Race, Rights, and Politics Attacks on Roma in Ukraine Screening and Discussion: “And We Were Germans” 2017 Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit Muslims & Minorities in the Military The Situation of Roma 2014 Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE region 2013 Europeans of African Descent ‘Black Europeans’: Race, Rights and Politics 2010 Roundtable Discussion: Minorities in France Minority Political Participation in the Obama Era Ethnic and Racial Profiling in the OSCE Region Fostering Effective Ethnic Minority Political Participation in the OSCE Region 2009 Hard Times and Hardening Attitudes: The Economic Downturn and the Rise of Violence Against Roma 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE Events 2019 Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future  2018 Inaugural Padweek Addresses Racial Discrimination Across Europe 2017 International Roma Day 2017 Helsinki Commission to Screen Acclaimed Film Aferim! (Bravo!) Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2012 Diversity, Inclusion, and U.S. Foreign Policy Wisdom Session 2009 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion Legislative Initiatives 2021 Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans Chairman Hastings Introduces Initiatives to Promote Rights and Recognize Achievements of People of African Descent  Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic   2020 Chairman Hastings, Helsinki Commissioners Moore, Cleaver, and Veasey Lead Call for Comprehensive Action to Address Anti-Black Racism Abroad Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic (H.R. 6239)   Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce (H.R. 6240) 2019 Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide (H.R. 1877) Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion (H.R. 256) National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S. 497) Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage (H.R. 292 and S. 141) Articles, Reports, and News 2020 The Future of American Diplomacy OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic 2019 On the Road to Inclusion Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future Inclusive Leadership Summit 2018 Fighting Racism and Xenophobia Against People of African Descent The OSCE and Roma 2017 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity Report of U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, 2017 Winter Meeting Romani Political Participation Key to Change 2014 Diversity on the Rise 2012 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims 2010 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Copenhagen Anniversary Conference U.S. Commission Denounces France’s Roma Evictions The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights 2009 Black European Summit International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence 2008 Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009 Iraq Refugee Crisis: The Calm Before the Storm? 2007 Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims Sustaining the Fight: Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance within the OSCE 2006 Accountability and Impunity: Investigations Into Sterilization Without Informed Consent in the Czech Republic and Slovakia 1996 Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law Statements and Speeches 2020 Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic 2019 Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe 2015 Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma 2014 Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation oh Hungarian Jews 2012 Roma Bridge Building 2011 Senator Cardin’s Response to Rep. King’s U.S. Anti-Muslim Hearings Attacks in Hungary and the Czech Republic 2010 Helsinki Commission Statement on International Human Rights Day Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe 2009 Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Condemn Turkish Government Destruction of nearly 1,000-year-old Roma Neighborhood Helsinki Commission Applauds Unveiling of Romania Holocaust Monument Slovak Romani Sterilization Victims Win Damages U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma 2008 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Groundbreaking of Romani Memorial in Berlin U.S. Helsinki Commission Urges Respect for Human Rights of Roma Teach About the Genocide of Roma Recognizing Europe’s Black Population 2007 Remarks at the OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding 2005 Racist Manifestations in Romania Deserve Government Response The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2004 Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago Roma Still Waiting for Their “Brown V. Board of Education” 2003 Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area Political Participation and Leadership Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2019 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2018 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2017 Legislators Roundtable "Equity and Inclusion Policies for a Changing World" 2016 Second Annual Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2011 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2010 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion 2009  Black European Summitt Report 2009 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network Workshop 2019  TILN Leading Through Change 2019 Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network Workshop 2018 TILN Stregthening Our Democracies Through Inclusive Leadership 2018 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Workshop 2017  #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2017 Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2016 TILN Fifth Anniversary: Celebrating Five Years and Looking Toward the Future TILN Workshop 2015 TILN Workshop 2014 TILN Workshop 2012-2013 TILN Conference U.S. State Department Remarks 2012 OSCE/ODHIR​ Romani Political Participation Key to Change Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Article Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Report  GMF/DOD Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector 2017 Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Military 2013 “Helsinki on the Hill” Podcast Series 2020 Communities at Risk The Roma 2019 Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

  • Podcast: The Roma

    Concentrated in post-communist Central and Southern Europe, Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Roma have historically faced persecution and were the victims of genocide during World War II. In post-communist countries, Roma have suffered disproportionately in the transition to market economies, in part due to endemic racism and discrimination. Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Margareta (Magda) Matache, Director of the Roma Program at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, joins Helsinki Commission Counsel for International Law Erika Schlager to discuss the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 10 | The Roma

  • Podcast: Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

    How can the United States and Europe achieve a long-term vision of stable, and sustainable, and inclusive democracies?  Political inclusion and economic empowerment in the face of discrimination and intolerance are imperative. Samira Rafaela, the first woman of Afro-Caribbean descent to win a seat in the European Parliament, European activist Alfiaz Vaiya, and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson discuss their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 5 | Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

  • Justice at Home

    Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

  • Justice Overseas

    Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption;  protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.

  • Our Impact by Country

Pages