LEGAL ANALYSIS OF RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY REVEALED IN TERJOLA

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(ქართული ვერსია იხილეთ ლინკზე)

In June 2014, another religious controversy was revealed in Georgia, which was followed by the dominant group restricting the rights of a religious minority, persecuting and abusing them. Several days prior to the local self-government elections, local Orthodox Christians, along with the clergy leadership, objected to the construction of a place of religious assembly by Jehova’s Witnesses in Terjola. As in other previously identified religious conflicts in Georgia, the local government showed unfair loyalty towards the majority and terminated a legal construction project based on an illicit and unjustified decision. Prior to the decision, a discriminatory approach was evident in the public statements of local government representatives, which apparently had an impact on the final formal decision. Despite the fact that the local government satisfied the unfair needs of the dominant group, Jehova’s Witnesses are still being persecuted in Terjola. They are the objects of persecution, threats, verbal assault, and attacks motivated by religious hatred, but this has not led to an effective response from the police.

During politically tense periods, manifestations of religious violence by dominant religious groups and clergy have been established as a tendency. In this regard, religious conflicts identified in Tsintskaro, Nigvziani, and Samtatskaro in the period of 2012-2013 are noteworthy. During this controversy the government failed to perform its role as a secular and legal state, which caused unjustified restrictions of the rights of Muslims and led to the encouragement of hate crimes. The state’s ineffective legal response to the activities of the extremist groups and unjustified loyalty towards them cause the spread of religious hatred and its manifestation in different social and cultural contexts.

 

  1. Review of factual circumstances related to the religious controversy

The description of factual circumstances by the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) is based on the evaluation of legal documents related to the construction and its termination, on explanations by local Jehova’s Witnesses in Terjola and by Giorgi Gabrichidze, a lawyer in Terjola Municipality, and on videos and photos depicting the religious controversy.

Jehova’s Witnesses acquired a permit for the construction of Kingdom Hall located on Four Brothers Street in compliance with all rules of the current legislation on 19 February 2014. Two weeks after the beginning of construction, local Orthodox Christians protested against the construction in a protest led by Spiridon Tsqipurishvili, Archpriest of the Ghvankiti Monastery of Virgin Mary.[1]Jehova’s Witnesses explained to the EMC that the protest organized by the local population took place during the first part of the day’s study hours  on 1 June 2014, and that teachers from Terjola Public School N2 were actively participating, as well as Rusuan Usufashvili, the Principal of the school, and students between the ages of 8 and 13. The discourse analysis of the statements by local Christians shows that the functioning of the Kingdom Hall in their own city was unacceptable to them and that they are discriminating against Jehova’s Witnesses. Sentiments expressed by the local clergy and parish show an attempt at the religious privatization of a public space. In order to illustrate the abovementioned discrimination, it is interesting to paraphrase several quotations which were expressed by local Orthodox Christians during the protest and which have a conceptual meaning: “Georgia is an Orthodox country and the government is obliged to take us into consideration and not the sect, which lies that they are trying to build a house”; “We should not allow the construction of Jehova’s and Raselists on our land”; “What will we tell 100,000 martyrs? That raselists are building the nest not the house? And will the 100,000 martyrs believe us?”; Supporters of homosexuals”.[2]

Local Orthodox Christians erected the cross during the protest close to the Kingdom Hall. At the same time, threats about the damage to health and the destruction of property could be heard. In order to prevent possible violence, Jehova’s Witnesses immediately called the police. However, the actions of the police towards the aggressive participants of the protest were limited to only a verbal warning.

Malkhaz Gurgenide, the governor of Terjola municipality, told the journalists during the protest on 3 June that the protesters did not have any reason to worry, since everything would be decided in favor of the majority[3].Additionally, he stated that the construction of the Kingdom Hall of Jehova’s Witnesses was carried out in violation of law, and assessed the territory as seismically hazardous zone without proper geological survey. This statement was made by governor, while the Supervision and Infrastructure Service, the responsible body for the supervision, did not make any similar statement either prior to the issuing of the construction permit,  after the issuing, or after the termination of the construction permit. According to the Jehova’s Witnesses, local government representatives explained to them at the meeting in the municipality that they could not allow the construction of the Kingdom Hall during the pre-election period.

Eventually, the local government terminated the construction permission not on the basis of the governor’s verbal statements, but based on the administrative complaint filed by citizen KakhaberMakaridze. According to KakhaberMakaridze, who lives 60 meters away from the Kingdom Hall territory, the construction process threatens the sustainability of his house and it is necessary to immediately terminate the construction process. This complaint was not based on any kind of expert’s report which would verify the risks associated with the construction. According to this complaint, the municipality council issued a decree to halt the construction on 4 June 2014. Prior to making this decision, the local government did not study the authenticity and objectivity of those threats that the citizen was complaining about, and automatically halted the construction permit.

Independent alternative geological research conducted by Jehova’s Witnesses verifies that the order issued by the chairman of the municipality council is unsubstantiated and that the study area, where the construction of a simple one-story building is intended, is in satisfactory conditions due to the fact that there is no evidence of adverse effects of natural-geological events (such as landslide, failure , etc.)

Despite the termination of construction permit for the hall, Jehova’s Witnesses are still being persecuted by the local population. Explanations provided by Jehova’s Witnesses illustrate that citizens threw garbage in the yard of the construction site several days after the protest. They are facing religious assaults, threats, and other forms of psychological pressure from the local population on a permanent basis. The victims often refer to the facts of intimidation and ambush near their homes. One of the Jehova’s Witnesses recalls that strangers who came near the house next to the construction site threatened him/her: “Come outside until I count to three otherwise I will kill all of you”. On 22 June during the night two strangers attacked the house that Jehova’s Witnesses are using for prayers until the construction of the Kingdom Hall is complete. The strangers threw stones at the house and assaulted the owner due to his religious beliefs.

  1. Legal Analysis of the case

2.1.Legal analysis of the termination of the construction

The construction of the Kingdom Hall on the land owned by Jehova’s Witnesses was implemented in full compliance with the law. After the issuing of the construction permit, the legislation allows the possibility of suspending the permit only under strictly defined circumstances. None of these circumstances provided by the law are present in this particular case. None of the activities related to the construction process of the Kingdom Hall in Terjola provided the basis for the Supervision Service to refer to the violation of the law. Only after the protests of the Orthodox Christian parish began, did the local government start to make verbal, unsubstantiated statements about the alleged violation of the law during the construction process.

The Chairman of the Terjola Municipality Council referred to Article 184 of the General Administrative Code of Georgia (later General Administrative Code) as the basis of the suspension of the construction. The lawyer of the Municipality referred to the same regulation when he spoke with EMC about the legal basis of the automatic suspension of the permission.

The General Administrative Code provides preventive mechanisms for the protection of human rights and legal interests. Article 184 is noteworthy in that regard which allows the temporary suspension (suspension effect) of the legal act on the basis of the administrative complaint. According to the content of this norm the citizen’s administrative complaint automatically causes suspension of an individual legal act from the moment of its registration. However, Article 184 provides for the opportunity to depart from the general rule of conduct on the basis of special legislation. Legislation related to construction, in particular, Article 35 of the Law of Georgia on Licenses and Permits defines that “in the case of an administrative complaint or lawsuit, a decision about the issuing of the permission, denial to issue it or its suspension shall not be suspended if the administrative body issuing the permission or reviewing the complaint (lawsuit) or the court makes another decision”.

Therefore, unlike the general rule, the special norm provides a different regulation related to construction and the filing of the administrative complaint does not automatically terminate the construction permit. Accordingly, the decision of the administrative body about the suspension of the construction should be substantiated and based on the objective evidence of threats and dangers which requires the report of geological examination.

Taking the abovementioned into consideration, the decision made by the Chairman of Terjola Municipality Council to automatically suspend the construction of Jehova’s Witnesses Hall within the procedures determined by Article 184 of the General Administrative Code was illicit and unsubstantiated.

2.2. Legal  responsibility of the local government officials

Based on the arguments provided above, civil servants TarierFanchulidze, Chairman of the municipality council, and Governor Malkhaz Gurgenidze were not guided by the law in their decision, but by the unfair demands and interests of the dominant religious group, and that is why they issued their official status. On the one hand, they violated the rights and legitimate interests (illegal hindering of religious activities which is secured by the Constitution) of individuals, and on the other hand, they violated the state authority and public interest. All of these indicate the conduct of alleged crimes determined by the Article 332 (abusing power) and Article 166 (illicit hindering of religious activities by abusing power) of the Criminal Code of Georgia (later Criminal Code) by civil servants which requires adequate response from the investigative bodies.

 

2.3.Analysis of the effectiveness of the police response in this case

Jehova’s Witnesses, Irakli Tsartsidze, Avtandil Vadachkoria, Nodar Butskhrikidze, and David Bluashvili indicated to the EMC that they called the police during and after the protests several times in order to prevent those threats and violence which took place against them, however, the response from the police towards the offenders was limited to only a written notice.

Written notice for an administrative offence is the lightest measure possible. While the coercion (Article 150 of the Criminal Code), threats, (Article 151 of the Criminal Code) and religious persecution (Article 156 of the Criminal Code) which took place against the Jehova’s Witnesses constitute a criminal violation and accordingly, in order to prevent them the police must have used measures determined by the criminal law, in particular, the launching of an investigation on the case, the carrying out of investigative activities, and subsequently the recognizing of the alleged defendants who committed the acts by the Prosecutor’s Office. Due to the increased social threats caused by them, the acts related to halting religious activities and persecution are criminalized, however, similar to this and other cases, analysis of the police practice illustrates that the law enforcement agencies consider this type of offense an administrative misconduct. Accordingly, despite the indications of crime, in the cases of religious oppressions and persecutions the police do not start an investigation and the response is limited only to sending notices.[4]Expropriation of the notice will not have a preventive character in the fight against crime, which is also verified by the current practice. The state’s failure to act is challenging for the groups motivated by religious hatred and aggression which significantly expands the scope of violence.

2.4.Breach of the requirements of the Law on General Education in this case

As the explanations provided by the Jehova’s Witnesses illustrate, both the teachers and students of the public school were participating in the protests against them. This fact requires adequate study and relevant response from the Ministry of Education and Science, since the principles of religious neutrality and non-discrimination defined by Article 13 of the Law on General Education were violated. The Law does not allow the use of students and school resources for non-school purposes, especially when this resource is directed towards religious intolerance and violence. Participation of school teachers in this process reflects the indoctrination practices in public schools which have a large scale and encourage violent and extremist attitudes and thought in society.

  1. Recommendation to relevant state agencies

Given the abovementioned factual circumstances and legal analysis, the EMC calls for:

  • The Terjola local government to follow the requirements of Georgian legislation and cancel its illegal and unsubstantiated decision. Moreover, to halt conducting discriminative policies towards the Jehova’s Witnesses.
  • The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia to use adequate legal actions for the acts envisaged by the Criminal Code and not to ignore religious hate crimes without adequate response. An investigation should be launched into the cases of abuse of power and of unlawful interference with activities of religious organization by Tariel Panchulidze, the chairman of the municipality council and by Malkhaz Gurgenidze, as well as into the case of the attack on the house of Jehova’s Witness Teimuraz Tsartsidze.
  • The Prosecutor’s Office to properly supervise the legality of the actions of the investigating authorities and their use of relevant measures in the fight against crime.
  • The Ministry of Reconciliation and Civil Equality and the State Agency on Religious Issues to coordinate relevant state agencies and conduct informative policy for the purpose of timely elimination of the religious controversy in Terjola and promotion of tolerant environment.

 

[1]See the appeal of Archpriest SpiridonTsqipurishvili to the protesters on the following link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=608770665899513&set=vb.378911675552081&type=2&theater

[2]https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=607484022694844&set=vb.378911675552081&type=2&theater

[3]See the statement of Malkhaz Gurgenidze, Terjola governor on the following link,  1:41 minute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhDZ-ZKHhE0 23.06.2014

[4] See EMC analysis about the cases of violence against the Jehova’s Witnesses on the following link:https://emc.org.ge/2014/04/24/iehovas_mowmeta_mimart_gamovlenili-_dzaladoba/