14 people, who were arrested by the police in incident in the village of Mokhe of Adigeni municipality over a disputed half-ruined building, which local Muslim community says was once a mosque, have been released.
Three of them were released on October 23 without being charged and other 11 persons were released after the court in Akhaltsikhe fined them with GEL 250 each.
Eleven detainees, whom the police were accusing of disobeying their orders and petty hooliganism, were denying allegations and were complaining of police abuse during the protest that took place against the local authorities’ plans to construct a library at the site of partially destroyed building, which was a mosque decades ago before being turned into public building of culture center in the Soviet times.
Several civil society and human rights groups said in their joint statement on October 23 that the police used “disproportionate force” against the protesters in the village of Mokhe.
“According to the witnesses, the police used physical force against detainees and made insulting remarks. Also, as the witnesses declared several detainees were severely beaten by the police. Among them was a woman, who received serious injuries on her face. According to Muslims, the group of detainees also includes young people, who intended to record the police action by their phone cameras, but their cameras were confiscated and destroyed,” reads the statement by Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association; Transparency International Georgia; International Society for fair Elections and Democracy; Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center; Georgian Democracy Initiative; Media Development Foundation and Tolerance and Diversity Institute.
Confrontation on October 22 was caused after the local authorities started implementation of their decision to build a library on the place of the disputed building in the village of Mokhe.
The local Muslim community, which makes majority of this small village in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, has been trying in vain since 2007 to reclaim this building, which is now owned by the local government.
Local Orthodox Christians of the village are against and say that as far as the local Muslim community already has an active mosque, located in a rented house in the village, it would be fair if the disputed building is restored for public use by the both communities.
Restitution of property, confiscated during the Soviet times, remains a long-standing contentious issue for religious minority groups in Georgia, among them for Muslim community.
Local newspaper, Samkhretis Karibche, reported on October 24 that construction works at the disputed building were suspended as of now and are not expected to be resumed at least till Sunday.
The Georgian Orthodox Church publicly weighed in on the dispute on October 24 with senior cleric, Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe, saying that transferring disputed building to the Muslim community would be “completely unacceptable”. Arguing that in 16th century an Orthodox monastery complex was located on this site, Metropolitan Theodore said that the disputed building should be transferred to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
PM Irakli Garibashvili, who described developments in Mokhe as a “minor incident”, said on October 23 that a dispute persisted between local Muslim and Orthodox communities about the building in question and “in order to avoid this conflict” the local authorities announced a tender for construction of a library that would be in use by the both communities.
“It is very regrettable what we saw yesterday [October 22]; I condemn any kind of violence, on the other hand I want to say that every citizen is equal before the law regardless of their religious affiliation… What happened yesterday is unacceptable and should be condemned, including the violence involving damaging police vehicles with stones,” PM Garibashvili said. “I want to call on everyone – whether they are Christians or Muslims, you are equal and you have to obey laws; the state will provide for protection of your rights and will not let anyone to violate your rights and to insult you faith; I call for calm.”
He also said that governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, Akaki Matchutadze, informed him that a deal was achieved with local Muslim leaders to build “a small residence” for local mufti.
Mamuka Vashakmadze, a mufti in Samtskhe-Javakheti region, said such a proposal was offered by the governor, which has never been accepted by him.
The governor has become one of the main targets of criticism of local Muslim leaders, who have accused Matchutadze of showing disrespect towards them; they also say that governor’s heavy-handed approach towards the problem has further complicated situation.
In their joint statement civil society and human rights groups slammed the government for mishandling the dispute.
“There have been several cases of religious violence against Muslims over the past two years (Nigvziani, Tsintskaro, Samtatskaro, Chela, Kobuleti, Mokhe). All these cases were of communal character and were caused by the intolerant attitudes of the local, dominant [Orthodox] religious group. The government was unable to handle the case of religious extremism adequately or to prevent the violence by certain individuals by conducting proper investigation. Moreover, the government frequently expresses its loyalty towards the majority and tries to cover up the problem by ignoring the rights of the Muslim community,” reads the statement.
It also says that PM Garibashvili’s October 23 statement, reacting on the incident in Mokhe, was “obviously inadequate”, which did not correspond to the needs and interests of the Muslim community. The rights groups also said that putting governor of Samtskhe-Javakheti region in charge of handling of the issue was “irresponsible” because governor Akaki Matchutadze, according to the local Muslim community, “has previously been aggressive in his treatment of the Muslims.”