A Georgian nightmare unfolds

By bne IntelliNews November 21, 2012

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

The growing number of arrests of former ruling party elites since the Georgian Dream coalition won the election on October 1 is leaving many to conclude that the incoming government is using its new powers to settle old political scores. And the return to Georgia and subsequent arrest of former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili on November 20 could prove the most dangerous for President Mikheil Saakashvili's circle, as the testimony of the former close ally and top-ranking official of the previous regime is sure to lead to more arrests.

The international pressure on the government to stop arresting former high ranking officials appears to have fallen on deaf ears. The arrest of Okruashvili, who is expected to go on trial on December 3 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and extortion, follows fresh charges the day before against Brigadier General Giorgi Kalandadze, the former head of the Georgian Joint Chiefs of Staff, despite international pressure on the government to stop arresting former high-ranking officials. Kalandadze was charged with unlawful detainment, a crime that carries a life sentence. Former defense minister Bacho Akhalaia (who also once served as prison minister and minister of internal affairs) is currently facing similar charges.

Philip Dimitrov, the EU's Ambassador to Georgia, stressed at a press conference on November 20 it is "important that there is no impression that justice is linked with political causes."

But there is little indication that either Ivanishvili or his cabinet are heeding those concerns. The speed and volume of arrests have prompted wide speculation about which Saakashvili ally could be next. Both Data Akhalaia, the brother of Bacho Akhalaia, and Giorgi Baramidze, a former defense minister, have been named as the targets of new investigations. Over the past week, a dozen former officials from the internal affairs ministry - Georgia's umbrella policing body - have been detained on charges ranging from abuse of power to using malware to spy and discredit the opposition.

Allies of former prime minister Vano Merabishvili were included in the round-up, including Shota Khizanishvili, a deputy mayor of Tbilisi at the time of his arrest November 16 on charges of illegal surveillance, who served as a deputy minister under Merabishvili when he was the interior affairs minister. Eleven other former officials from policing structures - including the powerful Department of Constitutional Security (the successor to the KGB) - were also arrested on similar charges.

The alleged crimes stem from allegations that the men planted malware in computers at the Georgian Dream headquarters to spy on the opposition prior to the elections. Charges released by the Prosecutor's Office indicate that the surveillance was used to leak incriminating audio recordings to the media in the days before the October 1 parliamentary election. Other charges include deliberately destroying property at Cartu Bank, the Georgian bank founded by Ivanishvili that was the targeted by the Georgian government last year after Ivanishvili announced his plans to enter politics.

Pot, kettle, black

Saakashvili supporters and members of his United National Movement (UNM) have blasted the arrests as being politically motivated.

Merabishvili, now the head of the UNM party, told journalists that his allies are being targeted as part of a special campaign to scare him and other former officials. "Bidzina Ivanishvili should have no hope that by such steps he will stir fear or anxiety among us. On the contrary, it will make us stronger."

Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, another powerful figure in the UNM, has also spoken up against the arrests. After Khizanishvili was refused bail on November 18, Ugulava said the charges were "obviously" politically motivated.

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, however, defended the arrests, asserting that cases are being made based on crimes committed, not on political alliances. On November 19, she also hinted that investigations are underway that could lead to Ugulava's arrest. Tsulukiani told journalists that "many questions" remain about Ugulava's activities, but there is not enough evidence yet to arrest him. Ugulava, once considered the UNM's likely candidate for president in the 2013 elections, is a strong Saakashvili ally and powerful figure in the party. He has served as the elected mayor of Tbilisi since 2010 so his position was not affected by Ivanishvili's win at the October 1 polls.

The efforts of the new government are not restricted to arrests: both the Justice Ministry and the new parliament are also working hard to meet pre-election promises to release prisoners.

The prison ministry has released 300 prisoners it deemed were ready to return to society. In addition, on November 19 the human rights committee in the parliament, together with a working group of non-government organizations, proposed a list of 148 prisoners and Georgians in exile who would be exonerated as political prisoners.

The list, which is not final, includes members of coalition political parties who were arrested over the past eight years on a variety of charges, as well as former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's husband Badri Bitsadze who fled the country in 2011 after he implicated in accidental deaths during the May 26, 2011 protest.

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