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Clergymen Attack ‘Cartographers Case’ Suspect, Journalists in David Gareji

David Gareji Monastery clergymen confronted and supposedly attacked yesterday Georgian Dream government-critical Mtavari Arkhi TV journalists and Iveri Melashvili, former state expert who is the key suspect in the controversial “Cartographer’s Case” investigation over attempts of land-ceding to Azerbaijan.

Footage aired by Mtavari Arkhi TV shows three clergymen initiating the verbal confrontation, which turned into a scuffle as two of them attempted to prevent the cameraman from filming the ensuing incident. The cameraman could be seen falling over with his equipment.

The Interior Ministry of Georgia has launched a probe into the incident, under Article 126 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, involving violence.

Later, after leaving the Monastery premises, the assailed group were confronted by civilians and reportedly Sagarejo Municipality representatives, who threatened Melashvili and the Mtavari Arkhi TV crew to never return to the place of worship.

Archpriest Andira Jagmaidze, PR Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, disavowed “aggression and violence,” adding that the incident was hard to watch. However, he said the Church is convinced Melashvili’s “unjustified” trip to the Monastery, accompanied by the Mtavari Arkhi crew, was a “planned provocation.” “The key aim of their actions yesterday was probably to create a certain negative backdrop for Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s meeting with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev,” Archpriest Jagmaidze stressed.

Melashvili, Former Chair of the State Border Delimitation Commission, said people were misled by the Georgian Dream Government to believe he is a traitor who “handed over and sold” Georgian lands to Azerbaijan. Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova, another defendant in the Cartographers Case have been arguing that the prosecution’s actual charges had little to do with the revered David Gareji Monastery area, while the Government and its supportive media linked the emotionally charged case’s sensitivity to the “David Gareji Monastery issue.”

First Vice-Speaker of the Parliament Gia Volski accused Melashvili of staging a provocation, arguing the incident served to compel the state to take legal action against the priests and “discredit the clergy.” Still, Vice-Speaker Volski stressed the attack was “unacceptable” and punishable by law.

Calls for probe into interference with journalists’ work

Following a lengthy questioning yesterday, Mtavari Arkhi TV reporter Ninutsa Kekelia criticized the authorities for not including charges of interference with journalistic activities in the investigation. The journalist said during the questioning “the prosecutor tried in every way to omit from the testimony the part where I said these persons were aggressive toward us because we were Mtavari Arkhi TV employees, and obstructed our work.”

The Coalition for Media Advocacy, uniting over a dozen local watchdogs, and the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, a self-regulatory body of journalists, both pointed out the incident involved obstruction of journalists’ work, calling on the authorities to probe into the issue.

“More frequent attacks on journalists lately are due to aggressive rhetorics on part of the government, and inadequate reactions by the law enforcement agencies,” the Charter stated.

Public Defender’s Office also denounced “any acts of violence against media representatives,” calling for timely and effective probes into all recent attacks against journalists, to avoid impunity and incentivizing further violence.

Amid the calls for an effective investigation, Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri did not rule out that additional charges may be pressed as the investigation continues, noting it is up to the prosecutors to decide on the issue.

The Background

Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova were detained in October 2020, shortly before the hotly-contested parliamentary elections. Both have repeatedly denied the charges under Article 308 (1) of the Criminal Code of Georgia, involving “actions directed at the violation of the territorial integrity of the country.”

Initially sent to pretrial detention, the cartographers were released on bail in January 2021. The case has since been brought to the European Court of Human Rights, as Melashvili and Ilychova argue their detention was part of the political agenda of the ruling party, a claim that has been voiced by Georgian civil society and opposition parties as well.

Georgian media watchdogs noted that, after their on-bail release, coordinated social media smear campaigns discredited the cartographers as enemies, and went on as far to suggest Natalia Ilychova’s “non-Georgianness” as a reason for her alleged “treason.” The campaign, egged on by some of the officials, and the pro-government media, portrays the two former state experts as traitors at the service of the previous, United National Movement administration.

Also noteworthy, that physical and verbal attacks against government-critical journalists have recently been on the rise in the country. In February, three men assaulted prominent journalist Vakho Sanaia of GD-critical Formula TV and his relatives in Tbilisi. In March, Kapiton Zhorzholiani, Mayor of northwestern Mestia Municipality, insulted and threatened journalist Ema Gogokhia, Mtavari Arkhi TV reporter over her investigation of corruption allegations against the municipality officials.

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