An anonymous leak of thousands of intercepted phone calls – and in some cases one-on-one conversations – targeting Georgian clergy rocked the country just ahead of crucial elections.
On September 13, an anonymous source sent emails and messages to dozens of reporters, sending a link to a website containing files of transcripts of conversations recorded by the State Security Service (SSS). The records indicated that the service had long snooped on the conversations of religious leaders with journalists, diplomats and each other, and created files on relatives, friends, doctors and lawyers of clergy.
“There is no such thing as a more diabolical and terrible job than the one in which I have spent several years! the home page of the read site. “This title is not like that – the title is noble – the state security service. […] In reality, nothing poses as much of a threat to our state, nothing rots it like us! We are cancer and I am one of the metastases!
The website has since disappeared, but the reporters who downloaded the files have combed them through. It is not known exactly how true the information is, but numerous surveillance targets have confirmed the authenticity of the files about them.
One of the files, titled “Adulteurs”, lists the names, identification numbers, addresses and photos of priests and nuns who have allegedly had relations with each other. Some files alluded to the “kompromat” video – Video
Some media also reported that some of the files referred to priests’ sexual relations with underage girls and boys.
Other files claim to identify dozens of priests of “non-traditional sexual orientation” as well as drug addicts, one of whom is said to have “systematically” used drugs in his own church.
The allegations have already caused tensions within the church: local media have captured a confrontation between the clergy of Chkondidi, in western Georgia, where priests physically assaulted the metropolitan of the diocese, calling him “adultery” and “liar”.
Many files include conversations with diplomats, including the ambassadors of the United States, the European Union and Israel. Most were conversations with members of the clergy, but some were internal communications.
“EU Ambassador to Georgia Carl Hartzell spoke with his assistant – and told him that tomorrow, October 9 at 11:00 am, the scheduled meeting with the priests of the ‘St. Andrew the First-Called University of the Patriarchate will last about an hour and a half,’ read one of the files, reported the local news channel Formula TV.
“The eavesdropping of diplomatic missions, even if they are not directed against them, constitutes a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”, declared Hubert Knirsch, the German ambassador to Georgia, who was mentioned several times in the files, in a maintenance with the Netgazeti information site.
This reporter even made a small appearance in the leaks. They contain a transcript of a conversation I had in May 2020 with Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze of the Evangelical Baptist Church for a story I was working on for another media about the church’s offer to host those suffering as a result of the COVID pandemic; they even explicitly mentioned wanting to welcome transgender people.
“On May 5, Rusudan Gotsiridze, bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church, told RFE / RL reporter Tornike Mandaria that Bishop Malkhaz Songhulashvili’s initiative to offer shelter did not receive many responses. for now, ”one of the transcripts, recorded by an intelligence officer named Akaki Nemsadze, reads. “T. Mandaria asked R. Gotsiridze to contact him in case any requests appear related to this initiative in order to prepare an article on this subject.
While the files appear to document numerous criminal acts, none of the priests named had been arrested.
The floor announcement on September 14, she opened an investigation for “breach of confidentiality of communication”.
Modern Georgia has a long story politically motivated surveillance. The previous government, led by the United National Movement (UNM) party, was known for the practice and when the current regime, led by the Georgian Dream Party, came to power, it vowed to stop it.
In 2013, the authorities publicly shredded 100 CDs, which they claimed contained personal recordings which they had inherited.
Human rights defenders began pushing for stronger safeguards against surveillance abuse, and in 2016 the Constitutional Court declared regulations unconstitutional that allowed the SSS to eavesdrop on personal conversations through direct access to servers. mobile phone operators.
The court ruled that the “key to the black box” should not be in the hands of law enforcement investigators.
Nonetheless, in 2017 a dreamy Georgian-majority parliament passed a law giving this key to a new agency under the SSS, although it also required court permission for such access.
The message from government officials changed several times in the days following the leak. They initially accused the UNM of attacking the state and the Church. Mamuka Mdinaradze, the ruling party faction leader in parliament, claims “They recorded it themselves, they edited it themselves, they confirmed it themselves.”
Then Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili pointed the finger at his predecessor Giorgi Gakharia – who has since has established itself as a political competitor– claiming that he and his team had “access to very large amounts of information, including the surveillance service” and that the authorities were investigating these links.
Gakharia has denied knowing about mass surveillance in the SSS during his tenure as prime minister, and before that as interior minister.
Church leaders said they believed the leak was aimed at influencing the crucial local elections coming up on October 2, but did not say how.
“There is an increasingly clear impression that the forces allegedly involved in disclosing the details of the surveillance are attempting to manipulate the elections using the church,” the Patriarchate spokeswoman told reporters. church, Andria Jagmaidze.
The SSS, for its part, called on the media to refrain from disseminating “inaccurate and unverified” information until the end of its investigation.
“Reproduction of such information violates the dignity of individuals, security guards and the service as a whole,” the SSS said in a statement. “It undermines confidence in law enforcement and seriously damages the state security system. “
Tornike Mandaria is a journalist based in Tbilisi.
This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.