President Bush should raise Georgia’s deteriorating human rights situation with President Eduard Shevardnadze, Human Rights Watch said today. President Shevardnadze begins a five-day visit to the United States today.

In a letter sent yesterday, Human Rights Watch drew President Bush’s attention to the escalating group violence against Christian worshippers of non-Orthodox faiths in Georgia. The attacks are growing in frequency and ferocity due to police complicity and the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible. Human Rights Watch also urged President Bush to question President Shevardnadze’s record on combating torture. In 1999, President Shevardnadze’s appointees supported the derailment of reforms to the criminal procedure code that aimed to curb the widespread practice of torture by Georgian police. Minor improvements to that law enacted this year fall short of a commitment to end torture.

“President Bush should make it clear that the new global fight against terrorism will not close the U.S. government’s eyes to mob beatings of peaceful religious worshippers,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “If Georgia wants to be considered a serious long –term partner it has to enforce the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch has received reports of three mob assaults on non-Orthodox Christian groups in the last week alone. On September 28, Georgian police reportedly stood aside to allow a mob of 100, armed with clubs and stones, to erect a roadblock on a highway leading out of the capital, Tbilisi. The mob stopped buses and cars transporting some 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses to a religious convention, dragged them out, kicked and beat them. They injured up to forty people, nearly a dozen of them seriously. The mob then attacked the convention site in the town of Marneuli, ransacking and burning property, injuring more people, and firing shots into the air. Police not only failed to intervene to stop the assaults, but allegedly confiscated film and a video camera from Jehovah’s Witnesses, and verbally derided them. On September 23, a mob attacked an evangelical church service in Tbilisi, reportedly injuring sixteen worshippers. On September 30, a group of approximately fourteen men reportedly attacked a Jehovah’s Witness prayer meeting in the town of Rustavi.

The Georgian authorities know the perpetrators of many of the mob attacks, which have been growing in intensity for two years. Vasili Mkalavishvili and other leaders make frequent media appearances, openly broadcast their planned attacks, and claim that they receive support from the police and security services. None of the leaders has been arrested for their role in any of the attacks.

On August 29 Human Rights Watch published a 14-page memorandum documenting the growing official intolerance of non-Orthodox Christian groups in Georgia, and the escalation of mob violence against them. The memorandum called on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to visit Georgia and investigate.

President Shevardnadze’s visit to the United States comes a week after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a highly critical resolution detailing Georgia’s failure to honor human rights obligations it assumed upon joining the organization in 1999, and urging major reforms to bring the country into line.