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Georgian Opposition Broadcaster Shuts Down As Political Scandals Heat Up --> Saakashvili (left) and Patarkatsishvili share the spotlight in happier times (ITAR-TASS) With slightly more than a week until a presidential election, voters in many countries might well expect accusations and counteraccusations to dominate the news. But the nature of a mounting political scandal in Georgia has surprised even jaded observers and led the country's most prominent non-state broadcaster to take itself off the air.

Billionaire presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili has been accused of seeking to overthrow the government by presenting evidence of voter fraud. He, in turn, has accused Georgian authorities of seeking to assassinate him in order to remove the threat that his candidacy represents.

In the midst of it all, Imedi television, which is co-owned by Patarkatsishvili, has suspended its broadcasting to protest "dirty political games" ahead of the January 5 election. Imedi television endured more than a month off the air after Georgian authorities in November accused it of encouraging the ouster of the government and forcibly suspended its broadcasts. This time, the popular opposition broadcaster has staged a preemptive blackout.

The political scandal and the Imedi shutoff come at a bad time for rivals seeking to challenge either Patarkatsishvili or the ex-president who called the special presidential election, Mikheil Saakashvili. Some of those candidates had depended on Imedi as a platform for their campaigns.

Georgi Targamadze, the director of Imedi's political programming, said the stations opted to suspend its broadcasts because employees had been subject to "official pressure and blackmail." But he suggested the move may also be an attempt by staff members to distance themselves from Patarkatsishvili.

"We'll say that this is not a closure of the TV channel, it's a suspension," Targamadze says. "In doing so, we are distancing ourselves from dirty political games." He goes on to suggest the move is "a protest against the government which did everything possible to blackmail and gain advantage over the employees, and [a] protest against the misunderstanding which is connected with participation of the owner of the channel in the election."

High Stakes

The past several days have witnessed a stinging volley of accusations and counteraccusations surrounding Patarkatsishvili, a billionaire who has repeatedly provoked government ire by openly opposing Saakashvili.

Patarkatsishvili describes himself as the most realistic challenger to Saakashvili in the January vote.

But Georgian prosecutors earlier this week accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting to overthrow the government in a coup d'etat. Deputy Prosecutor Nika Gvaramia said on December 25 that authorities had procured audiotapes that appear to show Patarkatsishvili offering an Interior Ministry official, Erekle Kodua, $100 million to falsely claim, one day after elections, that authorities had ordered him to stuff ballot boxes.

"According to this plan, on January 6 Kodua was supposed to participate in escalating the situation," Gvaramia said. "In particular, he publicly had to show two sacks of [fake] ballots and say that the government had ordered him to put them into ballot boxes. [According to the plan], he would refuse to do so for the reason that he is a 'real patriot.' At the same time, after the situation had been stirred up, he was meant to seize power at the Interior Ministry and neutralize the interior minister."

The tapes, which have been broadcast on state television, have not been authenticated. But they have had a dampening effect on public hopes the January vote would be free and fair.

Patarkatsishvili's campaign staff is led by Giorgi Zhvania, the brother of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died under mysterious circumstances in February 2005. Speaking on December 25, he accused government authorities of maligning Patarkatsishvili with false accusations. "The government wants to trap us in a dirty game. This is manipulation, using compromising information and propaganda," Zhvania said. "They want to present Badri Patarkatsishvili as an adventurist who has evil plans for the country [and] who is planning some kind of provocation and violence. I would like to announce with full responsibility [that] in the days ahead, everything will become clear to the public."

Patarkatsishvili, meanwhile, has offered a recording of his own that he claims shows an Interior Ministry official asking a contract killer to assassinate the Georgian billionaire in London, where he currently resides. Prosecutors in Georgia say they will investigate the claims but say Patarkatsishvili, who is wanted in Tbilisi for questioning, may be using the allegations as an excuse to avoid returning home.

Saakashvili called the early elections after a series of antigovernment protests in November, which prosecutors allege were sponsored by Patarkatsishvili.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report)