By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's interior minister defended the arrests of a raft of former state officials since the new government took power, responding to concerns raised by Europe and the United States of a political witch-hunt.
More than 20 ex-officials have been arrested and some charged with abuse of power since a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now prime minister, ousted the party of President Mikheil Saakashvili in an October 1 election.
Interior Minister Irakly Garibashvili denied the arrests were part of a settling of political scores in the former Soviet republic, a transit state for Caspian oil exports to Europe.
"Not a single arrest has been carried out because of political motives. We are restoring justice and telling the truth to our society with each of these arrests," the 30-year-old minister told Reuters in an interview at the weekend.
"There should not be privileged castes in this country anymore," he said. "If we find out that someone committed a crime, no matter who this person is, whether he is from our ranks or one of our political opponents, we'll hold everyone accountable to the full extent of the law."
Officials arrested since the election include Garibashvili's predecessor as interior minister, one of his deputies and two military commanders. The charges the officials face range from abuse of power to illegal confinement.
NATO and European Union leaders upbraided Ivanishvili over the arrests when he visited Brussels last month to try to bolster ties with the West and shake off opposition accusations of being pro-Russia.
Last week the United States warned Georgia not to follow the path of Ukraine into an era of political witch hunts. [ID:nL1E8MTF4V] Western governments have called for investigations to be transparent and fair.
Despite the criticism, the Interior Ministry questioned former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili on Saturday on suspicion of using a forged document and attempting an illegal border crossing. Merabishvili described it as part of a campaign of intimidation against former officials.
But Garibashvili's comments signaled the government would continue to pursue former officials suspected of committing crimes. He did not rule out pursuing former senior officials who left Georgia after the election.
Reforms weakening the president and strengthening parliament are to take effect after a presidential vote next year in which Saakashvili is barred from running.
But he is head of state for now and Europe and the United States, which eye any Russian influence in Georgia warily, have called for cooperation between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili during the period of cohabitation.
Saakashvili curbed petty corruption after coming to power nine years ago. Georgia had the best record among lower middle-income countries in terms of absence of corruption, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice, according to the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2012 report.
But crackdowns on street protests against his rule in 2007 and 2011 fueled opposition allegations that Saakashvili was authoritarian and used the police to punish opponents.
Garibashvili said U.S. instructors would help the new government conduct a "rebranding" of the Interior Ministry and retrain police officers.
"Our society's attitude to the police will change in the coming months as the police were very politicized in the last few years and were just a tool of a former ruling team."
He said the ministry's Special Operative Department and Constitutional Security Department, which Saakashvili's critics said targeted political opponents, had been disbanded.
But he said there would be no purge, saying that fewer than one percent of the ministry's more than 40,000 employees had been sacked or moved to new positions since he took over.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Rosalind Russell)