Washington – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) today welcomed positive developments in the Republic of Georgia where authorities arrested Basili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Orthodox priest, for his agitation of violence against members of minority religions.
On Friday, March 12th, authorities arrested Mkalavishvili, along with a number of his followers, enforcing a June 2003 Tbilisi court order to take Mkalavishvili into preventive detention.
“This is a bright day for the rule of law in Georgia, and I thank President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration for taking this courageous step,” said Chairman Smith. “I hope this represents the beginning of the end of mob violence against minority religious communities. I’ll have greater confidence when Georgian officials investigate and prosecute others, such as Paata Bluashvili who is known to have perpetrated violent criminal acts against religious minorities.”
“Members of the Helsinki Commission have repeatedly called upon the Georgian Government over the past four years to take action against Mkalavishvili and other mob leaders,” said Co-Chairman Campbell. “This is good news, and I urge the authorities to vigorously prosecute Mkalavishvili and his collaborators in trials which adhere to international norms.”
In a closed hearing in June 2003, the Vake-Saburtalo district court ordered authorities to take Mkalavishvili into preventive detention for his well-documented involvement in numerous mob attacks. The court hearing concerned the February 2002 attack, aired on local television, led by Mkalavishvili on a Baptist warehouse and the subsequent burning of Bibles stored in the facility. A separate long-running case against Mkalavishvili and others is pending for their involvement in three attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since 1999, several non-Georgian Orthodox religious groups have been the subject of violent mob attacks, usually led by Mkalavishvili, Bluashvili or their followers. Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals and especially Jehovah’s Witnesses have been repeatedly targeted for assault.
Members of the Helsinki Commission have repeatedly spoken out against the violence and lack of legal action under the previous government; however, in a recent letter to President Saakashvili, seven Members of the Commission expressed their eagerness to assist in establishing the rule of law on the heels of the recent revolution.
The Helsinki Commission maintains on its Internet site a detailed list of activities concerning freedom of religion and issues related to the Republic of Georgia.