A group of eight civil society organizations have called on chief prosecutor’s office on August 29 to investigate “illegal” removal of minaret from a mosque in the village of Chela, which, they said, violated property rights as well as rights of local Muslim community.
The joint statement, which analysis in details legal aspects of the case, is signed by the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association; Georgian Democratic Initiative; Tolerance and Diversity Institute; Analytical Center for Interethnic Cooperation and Consultations; Media Development Foundation; ALPE foundation; Multinational Georgia; Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center.
It says that actions carried out by the authorities contain “signs of crime”; it calls on the chief prosecutor’s office to investigate the case and launch legal proceedings against those officials, “whose illegal actions have grossly infringed” rights of residents of the Chela village.
Formally the reason for removal of the minaret was a decision by the Revenue Service at the Finance Ministry, which said that the minaret was removed for the purpose of its inspection to verify if the metal construction materials, used for building of the minaret, were properly declared when cargo was imported into Georgia from Turkey on July 14. The Revenue Service has claimed that construction material was possibly not correctly classified by importer in its declaration with a purpose of reducing amount due to be paid on import tax.
The civil society groups said in their statement that this explanation by the Revenue Service in fact “aims at misleading the public” and adds that importer of the cargo did not have to pay any import tax as Georgia has free trade agreement with Turkey since 2007.
“Analysis of the information available for us makes it clear that no financial damage whatsoever was incurred to the state during customs clearance of the minaret. But even in case of damage, the state structures anyway had no authority to disassemble the minaret.”
“Measures carried out by the customs department of the Revenue Service were illegal, unjustified and violated… private property rights and infringed Muslim community’s freedom of religion,” reads the statement and adds that the scale of operation to remove the minaret, which involved large number of law enforcement officers, triggers reasonable suspicion to believe that finding out of alleged irregularities during the import was not the reason behind this operation.
“The incident in Chela goes beyond illegal actions by the customs department of the Revenue Service and represents extremely alarming symptom of government’s discriminative policy towards religious minorities,” reads the statement.
The Revenue Service said in a statement on August 29, that only the cargo whose country of origin is Turkey can be exempted from import tax, according to the free trade agreement with Turkey. It also said that inspection found out that a wrong product code was assigned to the cargo upon its import; it said that code has now been changed making it subject to 12% import tax. The Revenue Service also stated that the minaret “is being returned.”
The groups have also slammed statements made by Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili on the incident as “irresponsible.”
“Irresponsible statements from state officials and politicians contributed to development of these extremely dangerous processes,” the groups said. “Position of the Justice Minister in respect of minaret removal in Chela that Muslims can pray even without minaret is especially disturbing. Statements made by the State Minister for Reintegration in which focus was made on papering over the real essence of the problem and shifting it in the context of confrontation between the political forces is also source of concern.”