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Disturbing Developments in the Republic of Georgia

  • Hon. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
    US












Senate

108th Congress, First Session

Mr. President, as cochairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am concerned by a myriad of problems that plague the nation of Georgia a decade after restoration of its independence and nearly eleven years after it joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE. Among these pressing concerns that I would like to bring to the attention of my colleagues is the ongoing violence against non-Orthodox religious groups, as well as allegations of torture perpetrated by Georgian security officials.

 

Concerning religious freedom, the situation in Georgia is one of the worst in the entire 55-nation region constituting the OSCE. Georgia is the only OSCE country where mobs are allowed to attack, violently and repeatedly, minority religious groups with complete impunity. Most recently, on January 24th, worshipers and clergy were assaulted and beaten in a mob attack on the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi, where an ecumenical service was to have taken place. While police did eventually intervene, no arrests were made, and the planned ecumenical service between Baptists, Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholics and Lutherans was canceled. While I am pleased President Shevardnadze did issue a decree calling for a full investigation, to date no action by police or the Prosecutor General has taken place.

 

During the past three years of escalating mob violence, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced the majority of attacks, along with Baptists, Pentecostals, and Catholics. Sadly, victims from throughout the country have filed approximately 800 criminal complaints, and not one of these has resulted in a criminal conviction. The mob attacks are usually led by either Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, or Paata Bluashvili, the leader of the Orthodox “Jvari” Union. Often the police and media are tipped off in advance of an attack–probably so that the media can arrive early and the police can show up late. The brazen leaders of these attacks have even given television interviews while mob brutality continues in the background.

 

In response to this ongoing campaign of violence against members of minority faiths, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other members of the Senate and House have been in correspondence with President Shevardnadze on numerous occasions. Congressional dismay over this ongoing issue was also reflected in language included in the omnibus appropriations bill underscoring concern over the Georgian Government’s apparent resistance to prosecuting and jailing the perpetrators of these mob attacks. Despite assurances, Georgian officials have neither quelled this violence nor taken effective measures against the perpetrators of these assaults. Ironically, it appears that minority religious communities may be freer in parts of Georgia outside of Tbilisi’s control than those under the central authorities.

 

The conference report language should send a strong message to President Shevardnadze and other Georgian leaders. They must understand the Congress’s deep and abiding interest in this matter and our desire to see those responsible for the violence put in jail.

 

I also must express my concern regarding the widespread, indeed routine, use of torture in the Republic of Georgia. While law enforcement remains virtually nonexistent when it comes to protecting religious minorities from violent attacks, the use of torture by police remains a commonplace tool for extracting confessions and obtaining convictions in other areas. A government commission has also acknowledged that the scale of corruption in law enforcement has seriously eroded public confidence in Georgia’s system of justice and the rule of law.

 

At one point, a few years ago, there appeared to be real political will to address this problem. Sadly, increased protections for detainees, adopted to facilitate Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe, were quickly reversed by the parliament once Georgia’s admission was complete. Moreover, I am particularly concerned by remarks made by Minister of Interior Koba Narchemashvili in November. In a move calculated to look tough on crime following a notorious murder, he called for seizing control of pre-trial detention facilities from the authority of the Ministry of Justice. This would move Georgia in exactly the wrong direction. Reform must continue on two levels; continuing to move Georgia’s legal standards into compliance with international norms, and improving actual implementation by law enforcement officers.

 

I want to see a prosperous, democratic, and independent Georgia, but these facts are deeply disturbing and disappointing. The Government of Georgia’s failure to effectively address these concerns through decisive action will only further erode confidence here in Washington as well as with the people of Georgia.

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