Former Georgian prime minister arrested on corruption charges

Reuters News
Posted: May 21, 2013 11:14 AM
Former Georgian prime minister arrested on corruption charges

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - Former Georgian prime minister Ivane Merabishvili was arrested on corruption charges on Tuesday in what the opposition said was a witch-hunt against members of the ousted administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Ex-healthcare minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, now a governor of Kakheti region in eastern Georgia, was also arrested after police questioned him and Merabishvili.

Dozens of former officials, including a former interior minister, have been arrested since billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili led an opposition coalition to election victory over Saakashvili's long-ruling party last October.

They have been charged with abuse of power, corruption, illegal confinement or illegally obtaining personal information.

Western countries have aired concerns that the new government has used selective justice and political persecution against political opponents in the ex-Soviet republic, a pivot of geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia.

Chiaberashvili and Merabishvili were questioned in connection with an investigation into alleged misuse of 5.2 million lari ($3.2 million) in public funds spent on the former ruling party's election campaign last year.

"Ivane Merabishvili has been arrested. Charges against him envisage a prison term from 7 to 12 years," Ilia Jalagania, a regional prosecutor, said at a briefing.

Saakashvili likened the case to the arrest and jailing in Ukraine of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on abuse-of-office charges.

"No one should have an illusion that it was not a political decision," Saakashvili said about the arrests of Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili. "It can have much more deplorable consequences for Georgia than for Ukraine."

A court will decide within 48 hours after the arrest whether to let Chiaberashvili and Merabishvili go on bail or remand them in custody.

($1=1.65 lari)

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Pravin Char)