APRIL 15, 2015
On April 1, 2015, Jehovah’s Witnesses launched an informational campaign to contact all police departments, municipalities, and prosecutors’ offices throughout the Republic of Georgia. The purpose of this campaign is to raise awareness of a recent, significant European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment, Begheluri and Others v. Georgia, which dealt with the violation of the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia. The campaign provides law enforcement officials with information about the facts of the case, the judgment, and the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Georgia’s Past Toleration of Violence
From 1999 to 2003, followers of a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest organized mob attacks to viciously beat Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the Witnesses lodged a total of 784 complaints with the police for these and similar incidents, officials either turned a blind eye to the violence or occasionally committed violent acts themselves against the Witnesses. None of the Witnesses’ complaints produced any tangible results. Because the Georgian authorities failed to act, the perpetrators became increasingly bold, even physically attacking Witnesses in courtrooms, at large religious conventions, and on the streets.
ECHR Decisions Mark a Turning Point
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia filed two applications with the ECHR to address these attacks. The Court ruled on the first case in May 2007, * and on the second case—Begheluri and Others v. Georgia—in October 2014. In both judgments, the ECHR condemned the Georgian State’s involvement in the attacks, establishing a clear link between the State’s indifference and an escalation of violence. As the ECHR noted in the Begheluri judgment, “the Georgian authorities created a climate of impunity, which ultimately encouraged other attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.” *
Commendably, the Georgian government issued a statement the day after the Begheluri judgment was announced, vowing to prevent future abuses:
“Georgia is firmly committed to protecting freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as human rights in general. The country is determined to ensure equality before the law and accountability for human rights abuses. In particular, it will never again allow a climate of impunity or toleration towards such abuses.”
Conditions in Georgia Improve
Conditions for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia today are in sharp contrast to those of previous years. Witnesses are able to worship in peace and are grateful that law enforcement officials now generally protect their rights. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to build houses of worship and have recently expanded their headquarters in the region.
However, some officials know little about Jehovah’s Witnesses or their beliefs and may know nothing of the Begheluri judgment or the government’s official statement. In addition, religiously motivated attacks still occur and remain unpunished—for example, in 2014, Witnesses documented at least 30 physical assaults against them. Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed additional applications with the ECHR to address these issues. *
The April campaign to inform officials should lead to further improvement in showing respect for human rights throughout Georgia. Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful for the Georgian government’s commitment never to allow a climate of impunity to take root again, and they expect that the government will remain dedicated to prosecuting those guilty of religious hate crimes.
^ Members of the Gldani Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Others v. Georgia, no. 71156/01, 3 May 2007.
^ Begheluri and Others v. Georgia, no. 28490/02, § 145, 7 October 2014.
^ Tsartsidze v. Georgia, no. 18766/04, filed on 26 May 2004 — Individuals victimized by state officials or suffered attacks while officials stood by; Biblaia and Others v. Georgia, no. 37276/05, filed on 10 September 2005 — Individuals victimized by state officials or suffered attacks while officials stood by; Tsulukidze and Others v. Georgia, no. 14797/11, filed on 27 January 2011 — Failure to adequately investigate and prosecute in nine religiously motivated attacks.