Amnesty International said a bill, currently under discussion in the Georgian Parliament proposing to make “insult of religious feelings” administrative offense, will undermine freedom of expression if adopted.
The bill, sponsored by MP from ruling GD coalition Soso Jachvliani, was endorsed by the parliament’s human rights committee at a session on February 2. The bill, however, drew criticism from some ruling coalition members, specifically lawmakers from the Republican Party, as well as from opposition UNM party. Georgian human rights and watchdog groups have also called on the Parliament not to adopt proposed draft law.
“The proponents of the draft law have come up with this initiative with the expressly stated aim of protecting the Georgian Orthodox Church and its clergy from ‘insults’ by which, in the examples the proponents cited, they meant public criticism of the Church,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“The proposed legislation would be incompatible with Georgia’s international obligations. It may effectively outlaw criticism of religious leaders and institutions, and suppress free speech on topical political and social issues, including the rights of women, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and of religious minorities.”
“Shielding the religious institutions from public criticism not only stifles freedom of expression, but in the context of Georgia may also reinforce discrimination and harassment of vulnerable communities, including condoning acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Amnesty International has documented several such violent incidents, in which the perpetrators purported to be acting in the name of ‘protecting’ or ‘shielding from insults’ their faith, the Georgian Orthodox Christianity professed by a majority of Georgians. In particular, individuals belonging to the LGBTI community and women’s rights campaigners have been, on regular occasions, subjected to intimidation ranging from death threats to violent attacks by the followers of the Georgian Orthodox Church after they made critical statements about the Church or its leadership,” the rights group said.
It called on the Georgian authorities to “reject the proposed legislation” and to take “effective steps to protect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for all, including individuals holding and expressing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, and [to] end discrimination against persons belonging to the LGBTI community in particular.”
In a written statement on February 4, the Georgian Orthodox Church denied that the Patriarchate is behind the bill or that the bill aims at limiting criticism of the Church.
“Although there are frequent cases of insults and use of hate speech against the [Orthodox] Church and its leader, adoption of such a bill has not been our initiative – neither now nor previously,” it said.
The Georgian Orthodox Church called on the authorities in January, 2015 to provide for “limits to freedom of expression” in order to protect rights of believers against “insult of religious feelings.”
In late 2013 the Interior Ministry-proposed draft law was offering adding “insult of religious feelings” clause to the code of administrative offenses, but at the time the proposal was dropped.