More Arrests in Georgia

Pace of investigations into President Saakashvili’s allies accelerates.

The Georgian government has broadened the scope of its investigations into officials from the previous administration with the arrest of two former ministers on corruption charges.

Former energy minister Alexander Khetaguri and Nika Gvaramia, who served as minister of justice and of education and science under President Mikhael Saakashivili, were both arrested on December 19. They were later released on bail.

Devi Kandelaki, director of the Telasi electricity company, which is 75 per cent owned by Russia’s Inter RAO company, was also arrested.

On December 21, former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili, who is outside Georgia, was summoned for questioning, with the interior ministry threatening further action if he failed to appear.

They are only the latest in a string of officials from Saakashvili’s administration to be placed under investigation since his United National Movement, UNM, lost a parliamentary election on October 1. While he remains head of state until next year’s presidential ballot, the new administration formed by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvilia and his Georgian Dream coalition have moved swiftly to cut away his power.

Those under investigation include former defence minister Bacho and other senior security-sector figures, and a former deputy economy minister. (See Georgian President Cries Foul After Ally's Arrest.)

President Saakashvili and his allies say the arrests are politically motivated, whereas police insist they are part of a legitimate probe into “elite corruption”.

Several hundred UNM supporters gathered outside police headquarters in Tbilisi to express solidarity with the detained ex-officials. Saakashvili’s allies in parliament also briefly boycotted proceedings.

Gvaramia was appointed director general of the influential Rustavi-2 television on November 14, and Saakashvili allies believe his arrest is also intended to intimidate the media outlet. Prosecutors deny any connection.

“I am very well aware that there’s been pressure on the [Rustavi-2] television company’s owners. That’s been reported on television as well – it isn’t something I’ve invented,” Saakashvili said. “Nothing has been found against them, nor can it be found, but now the director has been detained on wholly false charges.”

He added, “This will soon end, and it will end badly for those who are doing this.”

Investigators insist their investigations into Gvaramia began before he became head of Rustavi-2.

“He wasn’t detained for his work at the channel, but for taking part in a criminal enterprise that is an example of elite corruption,” Deputy Prosecutor General David Mchledishvili said. “The view expressed by politicians that Gvaramia’s arrest is an attack on the media is entirely illogical and untrue,” a prosecution service statement said.

After meeting the detainees, Georgia’s new human rights ombudsman, Ucha Nanuashvili, said, “Nika Gvaramia does not acknowledge any guilt, and believes his arrest is linked to his appointment as director of Rustavi-2. None of the detainees admits any guilt. They are very emotional and don’t understand what has happened.”

The United States ambassador in Tbilisi, Richard Norland, said he was following developments closely.

“Obviously, whenever the head of a TV station is arrested, one asks whether the issue is freedom of the press, a principle which the United States stands for,” he said. “Our focus will be on ensuring that due process and rule of law are observed.”

The UNM said it would continue protesting against the new government’s actions, but investigating officials showed no sign of letting up.

The prosecution service has now launched a probe into the expenditure of the National Security Council, an advisory body to President Saakashvili which has already had its budget slashed by the new government.

Tinatin Jvania works for Business Times Georgia magazine.