It’s a case with all the features of a period thriller: priests, poison and a supposed curse. And now, the trial of a senior Georgian Orthodox Church cleric for alleged attempted murder has taken on another characteristic of a whodunit -- a heavy shroud of secrecy – after the hearings were fully closed to the public.
Deacon Giorgi Mamaladze, 32, faces 16-20 years in prison for allegedly attempting to poison the Church leader’s secretary, Shorena Tetruashvili, the single most powerful woman and lay person within the boys’ club that is the Church hierarchy.
Agreeing with the government that an open discussion of the trial’s details would damage “public morality,” possibly threaten “public order” and violate the privacy and safety of those involved in the case, Judge Badri Shonia on May 5 upheld the prosecution’s motion for a closed-door trial.
Some see another motivation for the decision.
Critics claim that the state-funded Georgian Orthodox Church, widely regarded as part of Georgia’s national identity, has acquired too much property and power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, placing itself above public scrutiny and in a position to meddle in government policies and impede efforts to build a liberal democracy.
Though the lawyer for the Church's executive administration, the patriarchate, has stated that he sees no reason for the trial to be held in camera, the government clearly would not welcome being seen as the source of any unsavory details about the Church or its leader, Patriarch Ilia II.
Popular respect for Ilia II, who has led the Church since 1977, easily surpasses that for the government, which painstakingly displays veneration for the 84-year-old Church leader. After Mamaladze’s arrest in February, officials from Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili on down took credit for foiling a plot to assassinate a “major cleric” and saving Georgia from a “major calamity.” The statements were taken to mean the death of the patriarch.
Prominent intellectuals claim that, with Mamaladze’s trial behind closed doors, the public has lost a critical opportunity to scrutinize what links really exist between church and state, and what can be amiss within the patriarchate’s cloistered world.
“A thorough investigation of this case can expose the darkest, much-sealed passions and interests of the patriarchate and the government,” theologian Beka Mindiashvili, an outspoken Church critic, wrote on Facebook.
Closing the trial only poses risks to Georgia’s government and courts, Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili added. “Complete closure of the court hearing does not help enhance public trust in the investigative and judicial authorities,” Nanuashvili said in a statement.
Grounds exist for that view. For all its preoccupation with privacy and public order, it was the prosecutor’s office that published secretly recorded videos of Mamaladze supposedly discussing a poisoning scheme with a police informant.
In the videos, Mamaladze discusses plans to deliver cyanide to Germany, where the ailing patriarch, accompanied by the indispensable Tetruashvili, received medical treatment earlier this year. The priest tells his interlocutor that he “does not give a hoot” if residue of the cyanide is found, and expresses an ambition to move up in the Church’s echelons.
Yet shortly after Mamaladze’s detention, the case swayed toward comedy, when prosecutor Jarji Tsisklauri informed reporters that the priest had put a curse on him and “law-enforcement agencies in general.”
Defense attorneys insisted that their client didn’t commit the prosecutor’s office to eternal damnation, and also alleged that the videos had been edited to mislead the public. Mamaladze’s supporters recently claimed that investigators have pressured him to implicate other clerics and the patriarch’s former security chief in the poisoning case as well. They have not elaborated about their accusation, and prosecutors do not appear to have responded.
Mamaladze, a former manager of the patriarchate’s business holdings, has denied all wrongdoing. Some observers attribute the case against him for his earlier denunciation of alleged corruption in the Church’s business investments. On May 7, pro-opposition TV station Rustavi2 reported that Mamaladze has more than a few business investments of his own, including a gas station next to his house.
Amidst a heavy mixture of gossip and accusations by rival priests, it is excruciatingly difficult for Georgians -- believers or non-believers -- to make sense of the story.
Overall, many consider the case to be yet another in-house fight for power and privilege, and, most importantly, for the patriarch’s throne. Several clerics spoke up for Mamaladze and accused Tetruashvili of trying to usurp the ailing patriarch’s authority in a bid to control the Church.
So far, though, throughout the entire debacle, this supposed éminence grise has maintained a glacial silence. Only once did Tetruashvili comment about the case to a journalist, and, then, dismissively: “This does not concern me, my dear.”