How a Priest’s Accusation May Crush Georgia’s EU Dreams

Poison and murder plots complicate the former Soviet state's bid to join the union

How a Priest’s Accusation May Crush Georgia’s EU Dreams
A woman waves the European Union and Georgian flags during a rally in support of Georgia’s membership of the European Union in Tbilisi on July 3, 2022. (Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images)

On Feb. 10, 2017, the Orthodox deacon Giorgi Mamaladze was sitting on a transit bus at Tbilisi International Airport. The Georgian archpriest was headed for Germany, where he would join senior clerics who, days earlier, had accompanied their spiritual leader to a medical clinic following a sudden bout of ill health. But instead of boarding a plane, he was surrounded by state security agents, who dragged him from the bus and took him to a windowless room where he was detained for nine hours. His luggage was eventually brought in and the agents watched as the priest unpacked each item until, as he took a can of shoe deodorant and unscrewed the lid, a vial of white powder fell to the floor.

It was cyanide. Mamaladze was accused of plotting the murder of Ilia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia (head of the Georgian Orthodox Church), who lay in a hospital bed in Berlin, having his gallbladder removed by German surgeons.

So begins one of the most scandalous legal cases in modern Georgian history; a tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that would see one of the world’s oldest churches engulfed in accusations of political sabotage, factional backstabbing and secret sex affairs.

Mamaladze was sentenced to nine years in prison for “creating the conditions for murder.” After spending almost six years in solitary confinement, he continues to protest his innocence. “If I ever have the chance to meet [my accusers again], I will meet them with silence. Because if my silence tells them nothing, my words will be all the more pointless,” he wrote to New Lines in a letter penned from prison. “I pray that God will forgive them, ‘for they do not know what they have done,’” he added, quoting from the Bible.

It is also the story of obstacles along the path to European integration. In the summer of 2022, Ukraine and Moldova were moved along by the European Union in their candidacy applications. Yet Georgia, which is more affluent and has a lower corruption-perception index, was rejected, a significant blow for a country where more than 80% of the voting population favor joining the EU.

In November, an international court found that judicial proceedings had violated Mamaladze’s right to a fair trial. “The Georgian people truly want to get closer to Europe, but the government won’t surrender control of the judicial system,” said David Jandieri, Mamaladze’s lawyer, who is renowned for taking high-profile human rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Mamaladze’s story typifies issues within a Georgian judiciary described by experts as blighted by political attacks, excessive government influence and corruption — all of which have been held up as standing in the way of Georgia’s EU accession.

“His case represents the sad heritage of the totalitarian Soviet regime,” Jandieri continued. “Mamaladze was denied his right to be heard by the court in a fair manner, to make his case to the public.”

Georgia’s European aspirations have grown only more urgent following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago. A small country, bereft of international security guarantors, Georgia has twice been to war with Russia itself since gaining independence in 1991. For many, EU accession is as much about peace and stability as it is about greater economic prosperity. “Before the war started, the EU wasn’t seriously considering bringing in Georgia, or Moldova or Ukraine,” said Dachi Imedadze, a member of the pro-EU organization Shame Movement (as in “naming and shaming”). “The invasion changed everything. It has dismantled the geopolitical order,” he added.

But critics have expressed alarm that growing hostility toward the West, whom officials accuse of trying to drag Georgia into the conflict, may signal a willingness from the ruling Georgian Dream party to torpedo plans for membership if it means ensuring its own political survival. Georgian Dream has maintained power for over 10 years, having secured its first electoral victory in 2012 on a mandate to preserve peace and stability amid Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgian territory. Though claiming twice to have left politics altogether during that period, Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanashvili, is still widely considered the man behind the throne. As the country’s richest businessperson, he has attracted international criticism for his reputed ties to powerful Russian interests — his party has repeatedly declined to join in imposing economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime following the outbreak of war in Ukraine. There have even been calls from members of the European Parliament for Ivanashvili to personally face sanctions.

Against this backdrop, opposition figures have accused Georgian Dream of adopting a pro-Kremlin stance as the conflict rages, all while, they say, torching relations with historic allies at a time when all efforts should be made toward strengthening them. Indeed, the EU’s rejection of Georgia’s application for candidacy was based on the “overall ‘preparedness’ of the country to introduce the necessary reforms and meet the necessary political and economic criteria,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

Despite his relatively modest rank of deacon within the hierarchy of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the 39-year-old Mamaladze was a well-connected priest. He enjoyed a close relationship with Patriarch Ilia II and his nephew, Metropolitan Dimitry Shiolashvili — ties that had, in September 2015, made him head of the patriarchate’s property management department. There was a hitch, however. Church law states that key positions can be held only by bishops or other senior clerics — something Mamaladze was not, a situation that led to his swift demotion almost as soon as he got the job. According to the prosecution’s version of events, he was outraged and sought revenge against those responsible.

Sixteen months later, in January 2017, Mamaladze approached the journalist Irakli Mamaladze, also his friend and distant relative, for help obtaining cyanide. According to the case files, Irakli Mamaladze, concerned that he had uncovered an assassination plot, promptly contacted the state security service, who placed Giorgi Mamaladze under surveillance and told Irakli to begin taping their conversations. Among those recordings was the following exchange:

Giorgi: I just want a guarantee that it will be effective.
Irakli: The most important is that it is not neutralized by sugar.
Giorgi: I know that sugar neutralizes it.
Irakli: If someone eats a lot of sugar or sweets …
Giorgi: As far as I know they do not eat sweets, they try to stay away.
Irakli: … But does it not remain in the body?
Giorgi: I don’t know, why would I care? Let it remain. Who is going to find

After Giorgi’s arrest, a toxicological analysis confirmed the substance in the vial was indeed cyanide. A raid at his house also yielded an unlicensed firearm and a laptop with evidence of research on the poison.

He was charged the next day. The authorities quickly imposed nondisclosure requirements on proceedings, to “protect public morals” and the privacy of witnesses and third parties. But this did not keep prosecutors and officials from making damning public statements against Mamaladze, during both the investigation and the subsequent trial. In fact, just two days after Mamaladze was arrested, a press conference was held at which the prime minister, deputy prime minister and minister of justice all underlined how “a serious tragedy; a crime against our country, a treacherous attack on the church [had] been prevented.” The vagueness of their statements fueled speculation that Ilia II had been the target of the plot; only later was it made public that the apparent intended victim was actually his personal secretary, Shorena Tetruashvili, who had raised the question of Mamaladze’s rank after his 2015 promotion. Mamaladze’s lawyers applied to have the nondisclosure requirements dropped, only for their request to be refused the very same day the prosecution published incriminating extracts from Irakli Mamaladze’s recordings. Notably, the court also ruled against a petition to obtain CCTV footage of the time that Giorgi Mamaladze’s luggage was processed.

“Long before Mamaladze was convicted, the prosecution and the government did everything in their power to persuade people he was guilty,” Jandieri said. The trial was held behind closed doors. Mamaladze claimed Tetruashvili had in fact herself requested the cyanide, for goldsmithing purposes. His comments in the secret recordings, he said, were merely a misinterpreted joke about the extent of her influence over the patriarch. The defense, meanwhile, exhausted all options poking holes in the prosecution’s story: Why, if Mamaladze had been so slighted by his demotion, would he wait so long to make his move? And why, if Tetruashvili was among several to have raised the issue of his rank, including — supposedly — Mamaladze himself, would he have singled her out?

As well as being sentenced to nine years in prison, Mamaladze was promptly stripped of his priesthood. According to Jandieri, the judgment was never made public, even after the public defender’s office issued a report, slammed by the courts and prosecution, condemning the decision to hold the trial in secret and questioning why the defense hadn’t been able to obtain footage of the airport’s luggage-processing areas. “They created a black box around the case, which of course left so much room for conspiracy theories,” Jandieri said.

Some maintain Mamaladze was actually a thwarted whistleblower. Based on a letter from Mamaladze to Ilia II, from before his arrest and published by a TV station during the trial, the theory goes that he had uncovered evidence of corruption pertaining to church properties, and the charges were merely an attempt to silence him. While the letter’s authenticity was never verified, Jandieri said Mamaladze did indeed write to the patriarch over certain financial irregularities, though the version aired by the press contained significant revisions to the original. Another iteration of the conspiracy relates to Mamaladze’s close relationship with Metropolitan Dimitry Shiolashvili, who at the time of Mamaladze’s arrest was widely believed to be Ilia II’s most likely successor. When the patriarch took ill, leading members of the ruling Georgian Dream party were supposedly concerned that they did not enjoy as favorable a relationship with Shiolashvili as they had with Ilia II and sought to cast aspersions on his credentials by miring his associate in scandal. Shiolashvili has since renounced his claim to leadership of the patriarchate.

A third theory posits this was all in fact a misunderstanding that came about as the result of a factional spat within the church. Mamaladze and others purportedly resented Tetruashvili’s influence and sought to obtain the cyanide to frame her for plotting to kill the Patriarch, only for their plan to backfire when Irakli Mamaladze told the authorities he believed Giorgi was himself planning to kill Ilia II, accounting for the initial confusion over the plot’s intended victim. A lewder version, fueled by accusations of homosexuality from one of Mamaladze’s supporters among the clergy, speculates that Ilia II was romantically involved with other clerics and the case was closed to the public to keep scandalous details of the patriarch’s secret sex life out of view.

Successive domestic appeals failed in the following months and, in April 2018, Mamaladze hired Jandieri to take his case to the ECHR. In its November ruling, the court conceded that the decision to hold proceedings behind closed doors had technically violated Mamaladze’s right to a fair trial, as had public statements from both the prosecution and the government, by undermining the presumption of his innocence. However, the judges also maintained that, on the whole, proceedings had been fair, given that Mamaladze had failed in his appeal to substantiate his claim that the cyanide had been planted in his luggage.

Jandieri takes issue with how the judges ruled on the question of evidence against his client. He says the court did not sufficiently take into account the fact that the defense was unable to obtain surveillance footage of the luggage-processing areas at the Tbilisi airport, an example of the obstacles they had faced in substantiating his claim to have been framed. Not the least of those obstacles were the concerted effort by the prosecution and the state to make Mamaladze appear guilty before he went to trial, and the fact that the cyanide was effectively the basis on which the case against him was built.

“Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly, the ECHR was restrained in its judgment, and limited itself to more general considerations, thereby losing the essence of the issue,” Jandieri said. He’s not alone in his concerns. In a 2018 report, the Tbilisi-based NGO Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center found “substantial violations” during searches conducted by police, concluding that the burden of proof in Mamaladze’s case had simply not been met.

Incidentally, Mamaladze is not the only high-profile case in Georgia to have involved poisoning. A legal team representing former President Mikheil Saakashvili — the political archnemesis of the ruling Georgian Dream party, currently serving a six-year sentence for graft — released a medical report in December containing strong evidence their client has been the victim of heavy metal poisoning while in jail. Another Georgian leader, former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 2005 at his residence in Tbilisi as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, supposedly due to a faulty heater.

In the six years since his arrest, Mamaladze said he has not once seen his wife and two children because he does not want to upset them. “Even during phone calls, which I’m allowed to use three times a month for 15 minutes, we never discuss the stress and our feelings caused by my illegal detention on unlawful, trumped-up charges,” he wrote in his letter. During that time, he has remained in solitary confinement, where he claims his physical health has severely deteriorated. “I’ve lost sensation in half my body, and have been confined to bed for the past four years,” he said. “Despite that, I’m trying not to waste my time here and to use it for spiritual and mental growth.”

Mamaladze’s brother Tornike, in another letter to New Lines, said his condition worsens each time he visits him: “He’s paralyzed.”

The priest’s family have not given up hope, believing the ECHR ruling may help secure his release with an ankle monitor, for which he has been eligible since December. “All his accusers know that he is innocent,” Tornike said. “When I talked to them about it, some couldn’t even look me in the eye out of shame. What can I tell them? It’s on their conscience.”

Neither Shorena Tetruashvili nor the Georgian Orthodox Church replied to written requests for comment.

The Mamaladze case may be Georgia’s most spectacular legal saga of recent years, but it is far from the only one to have witnessed cries of foul play. Domestic NGOs and international commentators both condemned the conviction in May last year of Nika Gvaramia, director of the opposition media outlet TV Mtavari, as part of an ongoing assault against press freedoms under Georgian Dream. Similar concerns were raised over the 2015 case and imprisonment of Gigi Ugulava, a former mayor of Tbilisi, amid a pattern of criminal prosecutions against opposition figures, while civil groups in Tbilisi have expressed alarm at the increasingly arbitrary arrests of anti-government protesters during public demonstrations.

According to Gia Gvilava, a judicial projects manager at Transparency International’s Georgia chapter, such cases are clear signs of a wider systemic malaise. “Starting from the Soviet era, we’ve never had an independent judicial system,” he said. “It’s just our cultural heritage. The problem is they’ve never really tried; they’ve never known what it means to be an independent institution.”

Gvilava explains that, after Georgia gained independence in the early 1990s, the executive continued to control virtually every aspect of the judicial process — from case decisions to the appointment, promotion and dismissal of judges. It was this highly centralized system, based on loyalty to the party line, that Georgian Dream inherited with their first electoral victory in 2012. Initial attempts at reform faltered, as the new administration encountered serious resistance from judges who had not only prospered but also committed crimes under previous governments. United by their fear of retribution, these figures conspired to effectively paralyze the system, forcing Georgian Dream to the negotiating table. “They had these closed-door meetings, and suddenly the policy of Georgian Dream changed drastically,” Gvilava said. “They started to support these people, passing laws that only benefited the group that was influential.”

The Clan, as this powerful cadre is known, has always existed in one form or another. But it was during this period that the power structure supporting them took its present shape, replacing the previous model of direct executive control with a kind of informal, mutually assured destruction that allows the cabal to retain their position in exchange for pursuing the government’s agenda, all while maintaining plausible deniability of state capture.

One person who knows all too well the Clan’s stranglehold on Georgia’s judiciary is Nazi Janezashvili, a former non-judge member of the High Council of Justice, the country’s highest legal authority, between 2017 and 2021. During her tenure, Janezashvili was vocal about her concerns over a lack of independence, transparency and accountability in judicial governance — particularly regarding the appointment of Supreme Court candidates — and said her efforts made her the target of fierce hostility. “They conducted themselves like enemies … fighting against me, with their words, with their powers,” she recalled.

It is often forgotten that Ukraine isn’t the only country Russia has invaded since the Soviet collapse. Moscow provided boots on the ground for separatist forces in Georgia during the civil conflict of the early 1990s, then did the same again in 2008 during a five-day war that saw both the western region of Abkhazia and the northern region of South Ossetia recognized as independent states by the Kremlin. Given that some of those forces remain stationed there today, the international community considers 20% of sovereign Georgian territory to be currently occupied by Russia.

“The drive toward Europe started many years ago,” said Imedadze from the pro-EU movement. “Georgia has always had this mentality. We’ve seen what Russian occupation, Russian colonialism means. It’s deeply rooted in who we are.”

Imedadze adds that it’s important not to overlook economic prosperity and cultural identity as factors in popular support for European integration, but neither the specter of Kremlin aggression nor the enhanced security and stability of EU membership can be overstated. Also of note is that Georgia has failed to secure NATO membership and received no material support from its allies during the 2008 war.

As part of its response to Georgia’s application, the European Commission released a list of 12 key areas the country must address before it can be admitted to the bloc. Among those recommendations, Jandieri, Gvilava and Janezashvili rank judicial reform as the number one priority. How realistic the prospect of genuine change is, however, remains a desperately fraught question, not least given that Georgian Dream’s political survival relies in no small part on keeping the Clan on its side.

“Many, many problems in Georgia are a direct result of the lack of independence within our judicial system,” Janezashvili said. Gvilava described the government’s control over the judiciary as “the biggest challenge we’re facing. … What worries me most [is] that we’ll lose our historic chance because of it.”

Georgian Dream’s response to the war in Ukraine is another complicating factor. Despite immense public support for the Ukrainian cause, the party has declined to join international sanctions against Russia, instead launching unprecedented verbal attacks against EU and U.S. diplomats, whom they accuse of seeking to widen the conflict, in an ever more hostile stance toward historic allies that has also been adopted by the country’s pro-government press. “This anti-Western rhetoric that’s being seeded into our society, it’s not yet been enough to change attitudes, but my feeling is it’s starting to take hold,” said Nodar Rukhadze, another Shame Movement representative.

Gvilava further warns that such activity may also be a sign Georgian Dream officials are laying the ground to deny culpability for an eventual failure to secure membership. “We think they’re getting ready to blame everything on the EU,” he explains. “To say that they wanted us to engage in a war, and that’s why they never approved our application, not because we messed up with the judiciary.”

Today, Mamaladze sits alone in his prison cell, awaiting the Georgian government’s response to the ECHR’s ruling; it must present a plan explaining how it intends to act. “For my part, I receive minimal information, and only verbally,” he said, adding that his access to TV is restricted. When the ECHR’s judgment was handed down, state media inaccurately reported that the court “found no violation of [Mamaladze’s] right to a fair trial,” quoting the prosecutor’s office saying there were “no question marks” over the cleric’s conviction — a telling indication of how the authorities may be planning to respond.

Nevertheless, Mamaladze remains optimistic about his prospects for release and of soon being able “to take care of my family, my children, from whom I’ve been torn away forcibly.” A virtue hard won, perhaps, in a country where the legacy of imperialism, occupation and state capture has seen uncertainty woven into the very fabric of a nation.

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