Aide Charged With Abuse of Power in Georgia

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MOSCOW -- The Georgian authorities charged one of President Mikheil Saakashvili's top political partners with embezzlement and abuse of power on Tuesday, in the new government's most decisive move yet against Mr. Saakashvili's pro-Western team, which came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution and dominated Georgian politics for nine years.

The official, Vano Merabishvili, is head of Mr. Saakashvili's party, the United National Movement, and for years wielded great power as the head of Georgia's police and security services and then as prime minister. But he saw his influence dwindle quickly when an opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, won parliamentary elections in 2012.

Among the campaign promises that swept Georgia's new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, into office was a pledge to prosecute Saakashvili officials for offenses including corruption and police brutality. Dozens of officials have been charged with crimes since Mr. Ivanishvili's election, but Western diplomats have urged restraint, especially in cases that involved political rivals like Mr. Merabishvili.

If convicted on the abuse-of-power charges, Mr. Merabishvili could face a prison term of seven to 12 years, prosecutors said. His lawyer, Giorgi Chiviashvili, told Georgian television that he would plead not guilty.

Mr. Saakasvhili, whose presidential term will end this year, said Mr. Ivanishvili had chosen the repressive path of Ukraine's president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, who after winning the presidency in 2011 jailed his political rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko. The move, he said, would threaten Georgia's longtime aspiration to enter NATO and the European Union.

"Even Ukraine, which is so much needed by America and Europe, managed to become internationally isolated because of the political arrest of its former prime minister," he said Tuesday at a news conference.

Mr. Ivanishivili, who has pledged to maintain Georgia's path toward European integration, said he was confident that Western governments would not view the arrest as politically motivated.

Prosecutors say Mr. Merabishvili misused a government employment program, using 5.2 million lari, or about $3 million, to pay 22,000 people to campaign for the United National Movement. He may also face additional charges, including excessive use of force against demonstrators at a rally in May 2011 and obstruction of justice in a 2006 homicide investigation. A second Saakashvili official, Zurab Chiaberashvili, the governor of the eastern region of Kakheti, was also detained on charges relating to the employment program.

The crowd-fueled euphoria of the Rose Revolution put Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Merabishvili, then in their mid-30s, in control of a country plagued by corruption, crumbling infrastructure and electricity shortages. They pushed through risky reforms, overhauling the police force and imposing a zero-tolerance policy that all but obliterated everyday bribery.

But the United National Movement lost its luster in recent years. Unemployment was high, and the police were increasingly seen as heavy-handed. Just before the fall election, Mr. Saakashvili was badly damaged by the release of video clips showing brutal abuse in a Georgian prison. A poll released in April by the National Democratic Institute found that Mr. Saakashvili's party had an approval rating of 10 percent, versus 60 percent for Mr. Ivanishvili's coalition, Georgian Dream.

Mr. Merabishvili has had months to contemplate the possibility that he would be prosecuted, and in November said that he would stay in Georgia and run for office again, even if it meant serving a 15- or 20-year sentence.

"Georgian society, like any other society, thinks that pressure against the opposition is not democratic," he said. "I am the main opponent of Ivanishvili, yes, because I was the candidate for prime minister. So they are arresting his main opponent."

Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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