7 May 2003
First deputy finance minister Lasha Zhvania has pledged that two consignments of Jehovah's Witness literature seized by customs in the Black Sea port of Poti in March and April will be released as soon as customs procedures are complete. He strenuously denied that the shipments had been seized because they had been sent by the Jehovah's Witnesses. "It is certainly not my government's policy to obstruct people receiving religious literature of any kind," Zhvania told Forum 18 News Service. The Jehovah's Witnesses are challenging the seizures in court. "We have already presented all the documentation we need to. They should already have released the books," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Manuchar Tsimintia told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that the then customs chief sent a letter to all local branches in February telling them not to allow Jehovah's Witness literature into Georgia.
6 May 2003
Nearly two months after President Eduard Shevardnadze made a high-profile pledge that those who attack religious minorities will be punished, attackers continue to enjoy state-backed immunity. On 4 May a mob stopped the Jehovah's Witnesses holding a congress in the village of Ortasheni near Gori, Genadi Gudadze, the Jehovah's Witness leader in Georgia, told Forum 18 News Service. The mayor of Gori and the police chief warned them not to hold the congress. "It is not some bandit taking action against us but the state. So who can we complain to?" Gudadze declared. "Progress since the president made his pledge is not very significant," Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute told Forum 18. "Perhaps the 'mainstream' religious minorities – like the Baptists, the Catholics and the Lutherans – have seen some improvement, but the others – including the non-Patriarchate Orthodox, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna followers – have seen nothing change."
16 April 2003
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.
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.