Georgia: Verdict Arrives in Church Poisoning Plot
A guilty verdict has been delivered in Georgia’s poisoning conspiracy, an outré case that locally evoked comparisons to everything from the Game of Thrones to the Da Vinci Code.
After nearly seven months of investigation and trial, complete with cyanide, snake venom and macabre prophesies, the Tbilisi Criminal Court on September 5 sentenced a senior prelate, Archpriest Giorgi Mamaladze, to nine years in prison for an attempt on the life of Shorena Tetruashvili, the influential secretary and confidante of the powerful leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, 84-year-old Patriarch Ilia II.
Mamaladze, in his early 30s, was tasked with managing the Church’s rich coffers and inspecting the finances of the patriarchate, or Church administration. His criticism of alleged corruption within the Church, the country’s most influential, state-financed institution, prompted some Georgians to question if the case against him was payback. Or perhaps the sign of a struggle to succeed Patriarch Ilia II.
With the ruling against Mamaladze in, the rumor and controversy surrounding the case have anything but subsided.
After the verdict’s announcement, the archpriest’s attorneys and cleric-supporters stormed out of the courtroom, charging that the court had done the Georgian government’s bidding. “It became absolutely obvious that the judge was not independent in his decision,” Father Andria Saria told reporters. “He simply rubber-stamped the decision made jointly by Shorena’s gang” and government officials.
The Church’s spokesperson, Archimandrite Kakhaber Gogotishvili, ardently denied the allegations of a joint campaign against the embattled priest. “The clerics who make such statements . . . may be held accountable by ecclesiastic law,” he said.
Georgian officials partly have themselves to blame for accusations of collusion with a faction inside the patriarchate, the Church administration. Following Mamaladze’s arrest on February 10, top officials, from Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili down, insinuated that the poisoning plot had targeted the patriarch himself, the all but deified church leader, who has outranked and outlived all political leaders in Georgia’s independent history.
The case brought schism and reputational damage to the Georgian Orthodox Church, which, seen by most Georgians as part and parcel of their national identity, has been largely above public reproach and scrutiny.
“I view today’s court, and the lay and clerical persons that took part in it, as progenies of Pilate’s court,” said Metropolitan Archbishop Petre Tsaava, in reference to the trial of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Petre is seen as a leader of a faction at loggerheads with Tertruashvili, a perceived grey eminence within the Church.
Mamaladze was detained with cyanide in the Tbilisi airport as he was heading this February to Germany, where the patriarch was undergoing medical treatment. Government officials then claimed that they had thwarted a “national catastrophe” and an attempt on the life of a “supreme prelate.”
The prosecutors later said that Mamaladze was targeting Tetruashvili, but some clerics still maintain that the veteran patriarch was the target.
The Prosecutor’s Office released snippets of secretly recorded videos, in which Mamaladze, egged on by a police informant, discussed apparent plans to poison someone in Germany. The Rustavi2 television station obtained the full version of the recordings, in which Mamaladze’s plans appear blurrier. He says in the video that Tetruashvili’s death was prophesized by the late Father Gabriel, a much-venerated hermit monk.
Bizarre as the case had been from the outset, Mamaladze took it to a whole new level with claims in court of receiving requests from Tetruashvili to get cyanide and snake venom for her; one for an icon painter and the other for a homemade ointment. The media-shy Tetruashvili denied the claims.
Amidst this medieval-style drama, some see legal shortcomings. Among other problems, Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili has questioned the court’s presumption of innocence and its decision to deny Mamaladze access to key evidence.
Mamaladze’s lawyers have said they will appeal the court decision.