Georgia: NGO Attack Inquiry Falters

Georgian non-governmental organisations fear a violent attack on one of their offices two weeks ago will go unpunished.

Georgia: NGO Attack Inquiry Falters

Georgian non-governmental organisations fear a violent attack on one of their offices two weeks ago will go unpunished.

Georgian human rights activists were outraged on July 25 when a Tbilisi district court conditionally freed the only man so far apprehended for involvement in a violent attack on the offices of the prominent non-governmental organisation.


Rights activists view the incident earlier this month as the latest act in an officially tolerated campaign of intimidation against them.


Giorgy Donijashvili, a member of the extremist Orthodox group Jvari (or "Cross") from the town of Rustavi, had admitted taking part in the attack, in which raiders injured six members of the Liberty Institute and smashed their computers.


Doinjashvili had justified the violence by saying he had wanted to punish those who were defending "members of sects, enemies of the Georgian church" - a reference to the institute's championing of Georgia's religious minorities.


The district court - which was reviewing an earlier court decision to imprison him for three months while the incident was investigated - came under siege by hundreds of supporters of Doinjashvili, led by the renegade former Orthodox priest Father Basil Mkalavishvili, demanding his release.


The judge, who declared that Doinjashvili had recently got married and there was no risk of him running away, freed him on condition that he remained under police supervision and did not leave the city.


There was no mention of the dozen or so other men who carried out the attack. The interior ministry said in a statement that "a case has been opened and responsibility for the incident is being placed on the religious group Jvari", and that it was also investigating other attacks against religious minorities.


The brutal raid on the Liberty Institute took place in the centre of Tbilisi on July 10. At around 2 pm, a group of around 15 young well-built men broke into the institute and without any warning began to smash up the office and beat everyone inside, both men and women. This IWPR correspondent was amongst those in the office at the time.


"I was sitting at my computer when someone kicked open the door," said one of the NGO's employees Dali Tskitishvili. " 'Don't move!' shouted five young men bursting into the room, who began to beat Giga Prangishvili and Giorgy Meladze (institute employees). I jumped up in horror, but they hit me in the stomach and I flew back against the wall."


Two representatives of the Council of Europe, David Gladwell and Denis Chemla, who were visiting the office at the time, found themselves at the centre of the violence. "We started to make a barricade, moving furniture against the doors," Chemla said later.


Fortunately, the attackers were unable to break into the conference room, where most of the NGO's staff were having a meeting. But other rooms were ransacked - the extremists broke desks and smashed computers and telephones against the walls.


Six Liberty employees were beaten with severed telephone cables, truncheons and iron rods. The institute's director Levan Ramishvili was taken to hospital with serious concussion and is still confined to his bed.


The day after the attack, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze said, "I am angered by what has happened and I have given orders for it to be investigated and the guilty men to be found and punished."


However, local NGOs and human rights activists are concerned that the inquiry would not go far enough. They say that the July 10 raid was not an isolated incident, but the latest link in a chain of attacks and threats against the non-governmental sector in Georgia, some of which appear to have had at least tacit official support.


Religious extremism has been on the rise in Georgia in recent years and the Liberty Institute has been at the forefront of highlighting the problem (see for example Levan Ramishvilis's recent article for IWPR in CRS 136.)


Human rights activists have monitored the trials of religious extremists, such as the notorious Father Basil Mkalavishvili. In doing so, many, extraordinarily, have been beaten while attending the court. The authorities, meanwhile, have been either indifferent to their complaints or even shown sympathy for the extremists.


For example, last August Simon Machavariani, the prosecutor of the Kvemo Kartli region, publicly called on NGOs to stop criticising Jvari, asking them "to help in forming fair-minded public opinion" about the group.


On June 8, an outspoken radical deputy Guram Sharadze organised a demonstration outside the Liberty Institute's offices, calling for the group to be closed.


After the July 10 attack, Mkalavishvili himself declared, "I would not blame anyone for breaking the heads of the staff of the Liberty Institute. It is the Institute of Evil and the highest punishment awaits its members, since they are defending sects, which are devouring men's souls."


In addition to exposing the excesses of religious extremists, Georgia's NGOs monitor abuses of power and corruption and then disseminate information about them. This has often put them in direct confrontation with officialdom.


In April, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a strongly critical report of Georgia's human rights record, basing its remarks on data supplied by three NGOs. An angry President Shevardnadze called the information in the report "shadowy", even though all of it was well documented. Three months before Shevardnadze had said, "Non-governmental organisations are possibly being financed by international terrorists".


"They want to frighten us, they don't like the way we call a scoundrel a scoundrel," said Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, CIPDD, another prominent Georgian NGO. "But nothing will come of it for them."


Last winter, the finance ministry introduced a draft law, which proposed that the government should have full control of foreign grants for Georgian NGOs. At the same time, official auditors alleged that "no less than 485 million dollars had been spent in an unknown direction" on NGOs.


"The president is trying to impose full control on the NGOs and in the end keep afloat only those which are close to government circles," said Giga Shushania, director of the Centre of Democratic Development.


Parliament's economic policy committee threw out the first draft of the law, its head, Vano Merabishvili, saying, "The president is trying to halt the free flow of grants into Georgia in the hope of controlling them all himself."


However, the state chancery, part of the presidential administration, recently sent a new bill on the activities of charities to parliament, a part of which envisages imposing tight government control on overseas donations to NGOs.


Sozar Subari is a correspondent with Radio Liberty in Tbilisi.


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