Georgian prosecutors charge ex-minister and army officials

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 08, 2012 11:57 AM

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian prosecutors on Thursday charged a former minister and two army officials with abuse of power, in what the opposition calls political persecution by the new government.

A coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili ousted President Mikheil Saakashvili's party in a parliamentary election last month and the new prime minister said he would pursue former officials suspected of wrongdoing.

With Saakashvili's nine-year dominance of the political scene over, his allies now say they fear a witch hunt is being orchestrated by Ivanishvili's new government.

Prosecutors charged Bacho Akhalaia, a former interior and defense minister, Georgy Kalandadze, the army's chief-of-staff, and another army commander with abuse of power. Akhalaia was also charged with illegal confinement.

"Bacho Akhalaia answered all questions. He does not admit guilt," Akhalaia's lawyer Bachuki Kurashvili said, adding Tbilisi city court was due to decide on pre-trial detention measures on Friday.

Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili said on Wednesday state investigators had evidence that Akhalaia, Kalandadze and Zurab Shamatava, commander of the army's Fourth Brigade, had insulted six servicemen in October 2011.

Abuse of power carries a prison term of up to eight years, while Akhalaia could face as much as 12 years if convicted.

Television footage of abuse of prisoners in Georgian jails led to protests in the country of 4.5 million just before the election last month.

Akhalaia, 32, quit as interior minister over the prison abuse scandal. He left Georgia after the election but returned earlier this week and was detained on Wednesday.

He was appointed Georgia's defense minister in 2009. Before that he served as the head of Georgia's penitentiary system.

Human rights groups accuse him of delivering a heavy-handed crackdown on Georgia's largest prison riot in 2006, in which seven inmates were killed, and of ill treatment of prisoners and military servicemen.

The former Soviet republic fought a five-day war with giant neighbor Russia in 2008 and is a focus of tension between Moscow and the West, as well as a transit country for Caspian Sea oil and gas exports to Europe.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; editing by Andrew Roche)