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Georgian Arrests Raise Disturbing Questions


Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili

During the night of March 22-23, the Georgian Interior Ministry arrested 10 men in Batumi and Tbilisi on charges of illegal possession of arms.

Nine of them were subsequently identified as members of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia (DMES) established late last year by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze.

Later on March 23, the Interior Ministry made available to television companies film footage that showed persons whom it claimed were the detainees discussing the purchase of various weapons, from pistols to grenade-launchers.

But Burjanadze's husband, former Border Guards commander General Badri Bitsadze, was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying some of the men shown in the video footage were complete strangers with no ties to the DMES.

According to the website civil.ge, the video footage was apparently shot during a sting operation by undercover agents posing as arms dealers, and consisted of six separate episodes during which the acquisition and prices of weapons was discussed.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the ministry did not construe the recorded conversations as evidence of "a political conspiracy."

In November 2007, when Georgian police and security personnel used force to disperse mostly peaceful protesters in Tbilisi, the not entirely convincing rationale cited was that opposition politicians were conspiring with Russia to overthrow the country's leadership.

Burjanadze, visibly shaken by the implications of the arrests, told journalists in Tbilisi on March 23 that "in a normal country" no court of law would admit such video footage as evidence. At the same time, she affirmed her readiness to cooperate with the investigation the ministry has launched.

She said that the authorities are pressuring DMES members to quit the party, and that she anticipates that her home and the DMES main office will be searched. She added, however, that she will not leave the country.

Bitsadze told RFE/RL that Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili warned him through a third party to leave Georgia in order to avoid being arrested.

Bitsadze has been the victim of a concerted smear campaign in the Georgian media in recent weeks. He has been accused of planning to create "armed groups," and his name being linked with that of former National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani, who in early 1992 was instrumental in ousting then President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Several extraparliamentary opposition parties released a statement on March 23 condemning the arrests as "an attempt to terrorize society and...to sow suspicion about the legality" of the mass protest Burjanadze and her political allies have called for April 9 with the aim of pressuring President Mikheil Saakashvili to step down and schedule a pre-term presidential ballot.

Irakli Alasania, head of the opposition Alliance for Georgia, who like Burjanadze has indicated he would participate in that hoped-for election, was initially quoted as describing the arrests as "alarming."

But after the video footage was broadcast he refrained from any further comment. On March 21, Alasania released a written statement challenging Saakashvili to provide "within the next few days" concrete evidence to substantiate what Alasania termed "groundless allegations" that unspecified opposition figures were plotting to overthrow the government with Russian backing and financial support.

On March 24, Giorgi Targamadze, who heads the minority faction within the Georgian parliament, proposed that international experts be invited to participate in an "open and transparent investigation" of the events that led to the arrests "so that no questions remain unanswered," Caucasus Press reported.

The timing of the arrests, just two weeks before the planned protests in which several other opposition parties, including Alasania's Alliance and the Movement for a United Georgia headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, have announced they will participate, suggests that the Georgian leadership does indeed view Burjanadze as a threat to be discredited and if possible sidelined -- even though Saakashvili has repeatedly insisted that he will not step down before his second presidential term expires in January 2013.

But it is also conceivable that the entire operation was intended at least in part to enhance the prestige of the Interior Ministry and to deflect attention from the controversial announcement that the prison sentences handed down to four of its staffers have been halved, and the men will shortly be released.

The men were convicted for the January 2006 murder of a young banker hours after he engaged in an altercation in a Tbilisi bar with ministry staffers and Merabishvili's wife.

Two members of the parliamentary commission on pardons have resigned to protest that decision, which Georgian Minister for Euro-Atlantic Issues and former Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze described to Maestro TV on March 16 as "a big political mistake."

Former Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava told Georgia's Public Broadcaster on March 16 that the four men in question are aware of the true circumstances of the death in February 2005, purportedly as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, of then Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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