Jehovah's Witnesses victim exonerated by court in Tbilisi, Georgia

Mirian Arabidze, one of Jehovah's Witnesses, has finally been exonerated by the Supreme Court of Georgia, after wrongly being convicted of "hooliganism"

Arabidze was the victim of a mob attack in 1999 by religious extremists on a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for worship in the Gldani district of the Georgian capital. Mr. Arabidze was among several victims who were severely beaten during the attack.

Although he was a victim of assault, Mirian Arabidze was later charged and subsequently convicted by a Georgian court of "hooliganism" for his presence during the attack.

After years of legal battles, the Supreme Court of Georgia eventually exonerated Mr. Arabidze. The Court also ordered compensation to him for approximately $600 US for moral damages and legal fees. The compensation was paid as of November 18, 2004, and the exoneration was published in the official journal of the Georgian Ministry of Justice. Mr. Arabidze also received a letter of apology from the city prosecutor.

The court's decision appears to be a sign that the situation for Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia is improving. From 1999 to 2003 their peaceful religious services were constantly threatened with mob attacks by a minority group of religious extremists.

Unfortunately, the Prosecutor's Office in Georgia refused to prosecute the perpetrators of the mob attacks in Georgia and Jehovah's Witnesses filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights regarding the 1999 attack in Gldani. On July 6, 2004, the Court ruled that the Witnesses' application was admissible, and a decision on the merits of the case is expected in the coming months.

Such incidents have been seen in many of the ex-Soviet States and even Russia harbours a lot of prejudice towards Jehovah's Witnesses (some of which appears to be encouraged by Moscow).

Earlier this year, Moscow banned the Jehovah's Witnesses from performing religious activities in the City (but not in the rest of Russia). Sadly this action has encouraged some officials in Russia to place pressure on their activities outside Moscow as well. Only recently, a case involving deaf Jehovah's Witnesses was heard in the European Court. One of their meetings was stopped by officials and they were ordered to leave the building in a heavy handed manner. The meeting was legally held and they had an agreement to use the room where the meeting was held (and had done so many times before).

Unfortunately, the main pressure on the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is coming from the Russian Orthodox Church, who see the group as a rival.

This reluctance, by the Orthodox Church, to tolerate any other religious group or organization, is likely to spread over the coming years. They have government support to carry out these "attacks" and this also means the assistance of the state run television stations.

A program was shown recently that was crtical of the Scientology group and one can be fairly confident to assume that they are "next" on the list. A similar program was produced about the Jehovah's Witnesses just before they received their ban in Moscow.

In both programs, the most extreme areas were highlighted and members of the Orthodox Church were invited to offer their comments. Unfortunately, representatives from the groups were not allowed to air their views and provide some balance to the information.

As in any religion, there are good and bad areas. However, the programs should be presented in an unbiased way, providing comments from people for and against. This would then allow the viewers to make up their own minds.

Much of the argument against the Jehovah's Witnesses is their alleged "control" over their followers. Yet, the Orthodox Church have shown many times that these are the methods they employ themselves, in trying to encourage others to join them. Free choice appears to be a luxury that only others offer. If the Orthodox Church get their way, there will be no choice in Russia at all!