GEORGIA: Catholic radio broadcasts axed - literally
In the wake of an attack on independent radio station Dzveli Kalaki by axe-wielding men who destroyed the antenna and put it off the air, station director Irakli Machitadze is optimistic the attackers will be brought to justice. "There was wide publicity over the attack and officials promised that the case would be dealt with properly," he told Forum 18 from Kutaisi. He said the station's weekly Catholic programme – which has aroused the anger of the local Orthodox bishop and self-appointed vigilantes – was the most likely reason for the attack. But he vowed the Catholic broadcasts will continue. "It is a question of principle." No-one has been sentenced in Georgia for the series of attacks on religious minorities over the past few years, although the organisers are well known.
Tengiz Shekralidze, who is handling the case at the Kutaisi city procuracy, declined to discuss it. "The investigation is underway, so I am not allowed to say anything," he told Forum 18 on 15 April, before putting the phone down.
Machitadze reported that the attackers broke down the door of the radio station late on 28 March, then broke their way onto the roof and destroyed the antenna. He put the damage at 4,000 US dollars (28,985 Norwegian kroner or 3,690 Euros). "We will have to find this money ourselves. It is unlikely we will ever be able to recover it, even if they prosecute the perpetrators." The station has been off the air since the attack, though Machitadze hopes it will be possible to begin broadcasting again in the next few days.
"The Catholic programme is one of the most likely reasons for the attack," Machitadze told Forum 18. He said the Catholic community in Kutaisi, which he described as "fairly strong", proposed the idea of a weekly programme a year and a half ago. He believes the fact that the programme touched on the case of the city's former Catholic church – now in the hands of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate – may have contributed to Orthodox hostility to the programme and the station.
Machitadze stresses that the 28 March attack is only the latest in a string of incidents, including rowdy protests on 22 and 31 January. "The police investigated those incidents but brought no criminal cases. Why not?" He says that in the wake of the latest attack, the city procuracy is again looking at these incidents.
As one of the leading suspects in the latest attack – Gia Aprasidze – is a serving army officer, investigation of the attack was handed to the military procuracy, but on 10 April it was returned to the city procuracy after the military procuracy ruled that there was "insufficient evidence" against the officer.
Both Machitadze and Adelkhanov report remarks by the local Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Kallistrat, who has been hostile to the station. "He twice warned his flock not to listen to the Catholic programme and threatened that he would deny communion to those who did so," Adelkhanov told Forum 18. He pointed out that local Orthodox seminarians took part in demonstrations against the station in January, including an attempt to ransack the station on 31 January that was prevented by the station's security guards after the police had left.
Machitadze believes Metropolitan Kallistrat might have been behind an attempt to close down the station at about the same time, when local people protested that the station's broadcasts were harming their health.
With such strong forces ranged against it, Adelkhanov doubts whether Dzveli Kalaki will see justice done and whether the state authorities will protect it. "I believe the station will not have protectors strong enough to resist those who are more powerful. The Catholic Church is very cautious and I doubt it will take strong measures to defend the station."
Despite the continuing pressure, Machitadze vows that the weekly 20-minute Catholic broadcasts will continue. "It is a question of principle," he told Forum 18.
7 April 2003
True Orthodox leaders have expressed concern that the apparent closure of the criminal investigation into those guilty of destroying a True Orthodox Church in the village of Shemokmedi in south western Georgia last October will allow them to escape punishment. Deputy procurator Pridon Chanturia ordered the case to be closed on the grounds that "it was impossible to identify the organiser, encourager or perpetrator of the aforementioned criminal act". However, the chief procurator of Ozurgeti district, Yakov Iadolidze, categorically denied to Forum 18 News Service that the investigation has stopped. "The guilty will be prosecuted and there will be a criminal trial." But True Orthodox priest Fr Gela Aroshvili rejected Iadolidze's claim that the case was continuing. "He's lying. If that's so, why did they send us the 18 January decision declaring that the case was being closed?"
25 March 2003
Minority religious leaders and human rights activists remain sceptical that new pledges from political leaders to end the long-running religious violence and punish the perpetrators will bring justice to the victims. Pledges made by President Eduard Shevardnadze have been echoed by Security Council secretary Tedo Japaridze. "I have no doubt that the perpetrators of this violence will be punished," he told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor general Nugzar Gabrichidze was equally confident. "The perpetrators are not above the law," he told Forum 18. "I give a guarantee that if the victims of the violence go to court the perpetrators will be sentenced within one or two days." Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute was highly sceptical. "President Shevardnadze's apology at the ecumenical service was positive, but came too late," he told Forum 18. "There is no willingness on the part of the government to end the persecution."
25 March 2003
Seven weeks after an ecumenical service was broken up by a mob led by violent Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili, President Eduard Shevardnadze attended the re-run of the event on 14 March amid tight security at the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi. "Today I cannot help expressing my great sorrow and even anger that our unity, mutual respect and liberty of faith have been violated by some aggressors," Shevardnadze told the congregation. "I would like you to believe: the aggressor will be punished." Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union in Georgia, told Forum 18 News Service he believed the service would be "a milestone in the development of the religious life of Georgia". But others remain sceptical of the authorities' promises to end the years of religious violence, for which none of the known perpetrators have been sentenced.