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5/17/03 - RELIGIOUS MINORITIES IN GEORGIA - 2003-05-20


The Georgian constitution provides for religious freedom, but in practice members of minority faiths suffer great persecution.

Followers of the excommunicated Orthodox priest Basili Mkalavishvili have engaged in many attacks on Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and especially members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The most recent attack took place in a courtroom in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on April 29th, during the trial of Mkalavishvili. He stands accused of using force to disperse Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings.

Despite assurances from the government that security would be provided, Georgian police stood by and laughed as Mkalavishvili and some thirty of his followers went on a rampage. They physically assaulted the lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, those testifying on their behalf, and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Human Rights Watch.

Many others in the courtroom were threatened, including a journalist from a local television station. An American diplomat and a local employee from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi were forced to flee the courtroom for their own safety. They were later harassed by Georgian police stationed outside.

When the trial judge arrived, he joined Mkalavishvili’s defense attorneys in asking irrelevant and hostile questions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses plaintiffs, including about their sex lives. Less than a week after the trial was suspended, Mkalavishvili and his supporters prevented the Jehovah’s Witnesses from holding a national congress of their Georgian members in the town of Ortasheni.

The Mkalavishvili trial, as currently conducted, is a travesty of justice. Those involved, including the presiding judge and police, should be investigated, and punished if warranted. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has rightfully condemned intolerance and violence against members of religious minorities. But words are not enough. In Georgia, the government must act to protect religious freedom for all faiths.

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