Throughout 2000, a number of violent attacks against adherents to nontraditional confessions went unpunished, and such impunity sent a message to the perpetrators that further violence would be tolerated.
Throughout 2000, a number of violent attacks against adherents to nontraditional confessions went unpunished, and such impunity sent a message to the perpetrators that further violence would be tolerated. Indeed, instead of holding the perpetrators accountable, the authorities in one case chose to prosecute the victims. The lack of an adequate response to escalating violence against nontraditional confessions heightens our long-standing concern about Georgia's lack of commitment to freedom of conscience.
On August 17 at approximately 12:30 p.m., a group of about forty people led by Basil Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest known as Father Basili, assaulted human rights defenders, a journalist, and members of the Jehovah's Witness faith as they left the Guldani District Court, in a suburb of Tbilisi. Among those beaten were Giga Bokeria and Kote Vardzelashivli, both of the Liberty Institute, a Georgian nongovernment human rights organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression. Bokeria and Vardzelashvili had been monitoring a trial involving members of the Jehovah's Witness faith and of Father Basili's group. Bokeria told Human Rights Watch that on August 23 a police investigator at Nadzaldevi District Police Station told him that he would likely face criminal charges of hooliganism.
The day before, members of Father Basili's group also attacked journalists and Jehovah's Witnesses who had been at the same trial. Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported that one of its correspondents, Sozar Subeliani, was assaulted and beaten as he attempted to cover the trial on August 16. Canadian human rights lawyer John Burns, who was monitoring the trial as a representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses, also said in a written statement that he was dragged to the ground and struck with a large wooden cross after Father Basili's supporters burst into the court room. Burns said that some of the approximately eighty members of the group present at the courthouse shouted insults, and threatened and assaulted spectators and Jehovah's Witnesses seated in the court room.
Father Basili's group calls itself the Guldani Orthodox Diocese, although to the best of our knowledge it is not formally recognized by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Its members espouse ultranationalist views, and are especially virulent in their intolerance of non-Orthodox faiths.
Among those on trial August 16 and 17 were Mirian Arabidze and Zaza Kshadze, victims of an October 17, 1999 attack by Father Basili's group who were themselves charged with article 239 of the criminal code (hooliganism). The August 16 and 17 incidents were only the latest in a pattern of escalating violence perpetrated by Father Basili's group: in the past ten months the group has been responsible for at least eight attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths. The October 17 attack was particularly serious: between 120-150 members of Father Basili's congregation assaulted worshipers at a Jehovah's Witnesses service in Guldani District. Human Rights Watch collected extensive eyewitness accounts of this incident. At approximately 12:00 noon that day, a group of Father Basili's adherents arrived at a worship service being held at the Cultural House of the Guldani Technical College of Industry. Numerous victims told Human Rights Watch that their assailants, wielding sticks, chased and beat them, and others victims and eyewitnesses said their attackers chased, surrounded, and punched and kicked them. Footage of the incident, taped by the attackers themselves, later broadcast on the Rustavi 2 and Channel 2 news programs, and viewed by Human Rights Watch, confirmed this account: it showed individuals armed with large sticks threatening some Jehovah's Witnesses, others surrounding other Jehovah's Witnesses and striking them, and others forcibly restraining one individual and cutting his hair.
As a result of the incident, at least sixteen individuals required hospital treatment, and one, Pati Tabagkari, a forty-year-old Guldani resident, told Human Rights Watch that she sustained injuries so severe from the beating during the attack that she was incapacitated for a month and suffered permanent damage to her left eye. After the attack, seventy Jehovah's Witnesses submitted statements to the procuracy and Ministry of Internal Affairs officials.
Human Rights Watch considers it outrageous that the authorities pressed criminal charges against the victims of this assault, especially since the footage clearly identified the attackers, and that none of the assailants has been charged in relation to the violent physical assaults. Two female members of Father Basili's group were on trial on August 16 and 17, but only on charges of destruction of property.
Other alarming incidents targeting adherents to nontraditional faiths follow a pattern of violence, by which people who identified themselves as members of Father Basili's organization stalked Jehovah's Witnesses, and subsequently verbally or physically assaulted them. These include attacks on August 2, 2000 against Vladimir Marikyan and Sergey Barsigyan on Tianet Street in Guldani District, and on July 28, against a busload of Jehovah's Witnesses in Guldani on their way to a worship. According to a variety of sources, these incidents occur most frequently in Guldani District, in some cases near the headquarters of Father Basili's organization, in the Fourth Microregion of Guldani District. These include:
On January 16, at approximately 10:15 a.m., Lado Begeluri, and a companion, Giorgi Todua, both Guldani residents and Jehovah's Witnesses, were walking in the Fourth Microregion of Guldani when they were approached by a group of men who asked about literature they were carrying in a bag. The group of eight or nine men, approximately twenty to twenty-five years in age, then chased Todua and Begeluri. Begeluri told Human Rights Watch that when the group caught him, two of the members restrained him, while others kicked him, screamed insults at him regarding his religious beliefs, and stole the contents of his bag. He stated that his companion, Todua, was thrown to the ground and beaten by other members of the group, who also screamed insults at him regarding his religious beliefs, and identified themselves as members of Father Basili's organization. Begeluri identified some of those who participated in this incident as also having participated in the October 17 attack.
On February 13, shortly after 2:00 p.m., Lia Kikalishvili, a fifty-nine-year-old Guldani resident, and her companion, Medico Salukashvili, approximately sixty years old, were surrounded by a group men and women near Ahkmeteli Metro Station after leaving a worship service. Kikalishivi told Human Rights Watch that she and her companion were approached by a woman unknown to them who asked about the religious literature they were carrying. Subsequently, a crowd of about twenty people surrounded them, screamed insults at them and tore their clothing and other personal belongings. Members of the crowd surrounded Salukashvili, who suffers heart problems, vigorously shook and yelled at her. This incident lasted for approximately thirty minutes, and Salukashvili was incapacitated for several hours after. Kikalishvili told Human Rights Watch that she attempted to file a complaint at both the Eighth Microregion Police Station and at the Guldani Main Police station, but that officers refused to allow her to file the complaint.
On February 13, at approximately 1:00 p.m. a group of three men, approximately twenty to twenty-five years in age, approached Yuri Janashvili, a thirty-nine-year-old Guldani resident, and his companion, Vano Burduli, as they were walking in Guldani's Sixth Microregion. The three men asked Janashvili and Burduli about the literature they were carrying, and shortly after were joined by four more men, one dressed in a priest's robe, who yelled insults at them regarding the religious literature they were carrying. Janashvili told Human Rights Watch that some of those who participated in this incident also participated in the October 17 attack.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the possibility of further violence, given the Georgian government's record of failure to prosecute perpetrators for previous violent attacks against religious minorities. We urge you to immediately call for end to the attacks and to bring to justice those responsible for them.
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
cc: Lord Russell-Johnston, President, Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe
Mr. Guy Du Four, Co-Secretary, Monitoring Committee, Council of Europe
Amb. Gerard Stoudmann, ODIHR, OSCE
Amb. Mireille Musso, French Embassy, Tbilisi
Amb. Norbert Baas, German Embassy, Tbilisi
Amb. Richard Thomas Jenkins, U.K. Embassy, Tbilisi
Amb. Kenneth Yalowitz, U.S. Embassy, Tbilisi
Amb. Jean-Michel Lacombe, OSCE, Tbilisi
Amb. Elio Germano, Delegation of the European Commission, Tbilisi
Mr. Cristopher Lane, Resident Representative, International Monetary Fund, Tbilisi
Mr. Tevfik Yaprak, Resident Representative, World Bank, Tbilisi
Sen. Mitch McConnel, chair, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations
Sen. Sam Brownback, chair, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern & South Asian Affairs
Rep. Sonny Callahan, chair, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations
Rep. Christopher Smith, chair, CSCE Helsinki Committee