Court in Georgia keeps ex-minister in custody

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 09, 2012 10:45 AM
Court in Georgia keeps ex-minister in custody

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - A Georgian court decided on Friday to keep a former minister in custody, but freed two army commanders on bail after they were charged with abuse of power.

The case has raised concerns that the new government led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is waging a political vendetta.

The new prime minister vowed to pursue former officials suspected of wrongdoing after his coalition ousted President Mikheil Saakashvili's party in a parliamentary poll last month.

With the end of Saakashvili's nine-year dominance of the political scene in the Caucasus state, his allies fear Ivanishvili's government is orchestrating a witch hunt.

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.

Prosecutors had requested that all three defendants be held in pre-trial detention.

Tbilisi city court ordered Akhalaia detained for two months before trial and set bail at 20,000 lari ($12,000) for each of the two army officials, their lawyers said.

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 just before last month's election.

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 defense minister in 2009. Before that he served as the head of the penitentiary system.

Human rights groups accuse him of ordering 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 of 4.5 million people 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 Douglas Busvine and Alistair Lyon)