OCTOBER 14, 2014
On October 7, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Georgia. The case, Begheluri and Others v. Georgia, was submitted to the Court over 12 years ago and involves 99 victims in 30 instances of physical violence and verbal abuse. All but one victim were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The incidents began with the violent dispersal by the police of several large religious gatherings and extended to widespread religiously motivated violence in the Witnesses’ homes, in courtrooms, and on the streets.
The ECHR’s judgment noted that the applicants had lodged approximately 160 complaints with the investigation authorities, and that these alleged that some of the attacks were carried out with the direct participation of the police and other authorities. However, those complaints failed to bring about any concrete results. Because the perpetrators were not punished, they were emboldened to carry out further attacks.
For example, on September 8, 2000, some 700 Witnesses were gathered together for a religious assembly in the city of Zugdidi. Suddenly, a SWAT team of masked policemen stormed the site, set fire to the structures erected for the assembly, and beat approximately 50 of the worshippers. The victims immediately filed complaints. However, the authorities refused to prosecute the perpetrators, leaving the victims without legal remedy.
ECHR Condemns the Failure of Authorities to Respond Adequately
Because law-enforcement authorities failed to carry out prompt and effective investigations and perpetrators were never punished, the victims joined in submitting an application to the ECHR in 2002.
In its October 7 judgment, the ECHR stated that “the Georgian authorities created a climate of impunity, which ultimately encouraged other attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.” The Court also noted that the violent attacks were “instigated by a bigoted attitude towards the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses” and that the law-enforcement authorities displayed “the very same discriminatory state of mind . . . , which confirmed that the authorities at least tolerated that violence.”
“The Georgian authorities created a climate of impunity, which ultimately encouraged other attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.”
— Begheluri and Others v. Georgia, no. 28490/02, 7 October 2014, p. 40, par. 145
Consequently, the ECHR ruled that Georgian authorities were guilty of inhuman treatment toward 47 of the applicants and that they had discriminated against and violated the religious freedom of 88 of the applicants. The ECHR ordered the government “to put an end to the violation found by the Court and to redress the effects” of its inaction and “bigoted attitude.” The ECHR imposed a fine of more than 45,000 euros to compensate the victims for moral damages and legal costs.
Improved Situation for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia
While the situation has greatly improved since 2004, the Witnesses in Georgia nevertheless continue to experience sporadic attacks and harassment. In 2013, there were 53 reported incidents of violence against the Witnesses. The Begheluri judgment obligates Georgian authorities to conduct prompt and effective investigations of criminal acts committed against its citizens. Jehovah’s Witnesses expect that the government will, without bias against them, prosecute and punish individuals guilty of religiously motivated crimes.