JUNE 22, 2015
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has accepted the Georgian government’s admission that it interfered with the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning freedom of religion and freedom of association. The case Union of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others v. Georgia concerned the government’s action to annul the registration of two legal entities used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The annulment contributed to an escalation of violence against the Witnesses from 2001 to 2004.
ECHR Accepts Georgia’s Admission of Guilt
In its decision published on May 21, 2015, * the ECHR stated that in September 2014, the government filed a unilateral declaration stating its “wish to express regretful acknowledgement of the violation” of the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The declaration further admitted that Georgia’s action to deregister the Witnesses’ legal entities in 2000 “was not justified” and that the lack of proper legislation deprived those entities of the possibility to be registered.
The ECHR accepted the government’s admission as sufficient grounds to settle the case. The ECHR observed that “either by denying registration to various religious groups or by annulling their registration, the relevant authorities had interfered with the applicant organisations’ right to freedom of religion and association, in violation of Article 11 of the Convention read in light of Article 9.” The government has agreed to pay 6,000 euros for damages and expenses.
Annulling Legal Entities Leads to Years of Persecution
The two entities, Union of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Representation of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (USA) in Georgia, were legally registered in 1998. However, an ultranationalist parliamentarian wanted Jehovah’s Witnesses to be banned throughout Georgia. Some Orthodox religious leaders and extremists supported him by propagating slanderous statements and inciting violence against the Witnesses.
In April 1999, the parliamentarian, as the representative of his political party, filed a complaint with the Isani-Samgori Circuit Court of Tbilisi to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and to annul the registration of their two legal entities. When the trial began in June 1999, Orthodox priests and their supporters were present inside the courtroom. Outside the courtroom, a defrocked Orthodox priest, Vasili Mkalavishvili, and his followers publicly burned religious literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After examining the evidence, the Isani-Samgori Circuit Court dismissed the parliamentarian’s claims as unfounded. He then appealed the decision. On June 26, 2000, the appeal chamber reversed the trial court decision and ordered that the Witnesses’ legal entities be annulled. After the decision, Orthodox extremists exploited the situation by orchestrating a series of violent attacks against the Witnesses. On February 22, 2001, the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the annulments on appeal, claiming that a lack of necessary legislation left it with no other recourse than to rule against the Witnesses. Having exhausted domestic remedies, Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an application to the ECHR on August 16, 2001.
After the Supreme Court decision, persecution and violence against the Witnesses escalated considerably, resulting in hundreds of attacks. In most cases, law-enforcement authorities failed to protect the Witnesses and, in some instances, even participated in the violence against them. Many Witnesses were severely injured. Religious extremists violently disrupted their religious meetings, burned and ransacked their homes, stole or destroyed personal property, and burned religious literature. Authorities denied Witnesses permission to import literature and then confiscated previously imported publications. The authorities also denied the Witnesses the use of rental facilities to hold religious services. Because of the intensity of the persecution and the government’s refusal to protect the victims, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia submitted applications to the ECHR highlighting their mistreatment and the complicity of law-enforcement authorities. In two cases, the ECHR has already ruled in favor of the Witnesses on this issue. *
As the situation improved in Georgia, the Witnesses were able to reregister their legal entities so that they could hold property and care for their legal interests. During that time, Georgian authorities arrested and imprisoned Mkalavishvili, the main perpetrator of the violence, along with some of his adherents. The severe persecution of the Witnesses ended in 2004.
Although the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia has improved over the years, they still experience sporadic interference with their religious activity. A recent report submitted to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe revealed that in the 2014 calendar year, 63 hate crimes were committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia.
Michael Jones, local representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “We are grateful to the European Court of Human Rights for recognizing the unjust treatment of the Witnesses in past years. We are happy to see Georgia’s commitment to protect human rights, and we hope that this recent decision, together with other favorable judgments from the Court, will result in fair treatment and even greater religious freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia.”
^ par. 4 The ECHR decided on the case on April 21, 2015, but published the decision one month later.
^ par. 10 Members of the Gldani Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others v. Georgia, no. 71156/01, 3 May 2007; and Begheluri and Others v. Georgia, no. 28490/02, 7 October 2014.