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Georgian Court Hands Down Heavy Sentences In Mutiny Trial

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) talks with soldiers who took part in a mutiny at the Mukhrovani base last year. The opposition claims the mutiny was a distraction planned by the government.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) talks with soldiers who took part in a mutiny at the Mukhrovani base last year. The opposition claims the mutiny was a distraction planned by the government.

(RFE/RL) -- A Georgian court has convicted three men on charges of organizing a military rebellion and sentenced them to lengthy jail terms.

The standoff at the Mukhrovani base on May 5, 2009, came after months of civil unrest and opposition protests that followed Georgia's defeat in its August 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The heaviest sentences, 19 to 29 years, went to the three purported ringleaders.

Retired army Colonel Koba Otanadze, rangers commander Levan Amiridze, and the base's tank battalion commander, Shota Gorgiashvili, were convicted of planning an insurrection with the aim of overthrowing the government.

The three were among a group of 40-plus defendants facing charges, according to court official Eka Areshidze, "of preparing and carrying out an insurrection to overthrow the state government; of helping the military leadership in their insubordination to the legitimate authorities; of preparing and illegally keeping explosive materials; of helping the military leadership to illegally deploy military hardware and personnel; and other acts of insubordination to the legitimate authorities."

The Tbilisi court sentenced 16 other defendants to between three and 15 years.

Another key defendant, former National Guard commander Koba Kobaladze, was cleared of the mutiny charge.

Kobaladze was found guilty of a lesser charge of illegal firearms possession and sentenced to eight months in prison. But due to time already served, he was freed immediately after the judge delivered the verdict.

Kobaladze told RFE/RL he had not expected to be acquitted of the coup charges.

His lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, said Kobaladze's acquittal "is grounds for satisfaction, all the more so because our courts practically never acquit people, but his innocence and the absence of any evidence to substantiate [the charges] was so obvious that any other verdict was inconceivable."

Disputed Mutiny

The alleged mutiny broke out at the Mukhrovani tank base near the capital, Tbilisi, in May last year.

Within hours of the news breaking, President Mikheil Saakashvili followed tanks and armored personnel carriers into the base and authorities announced the rebellion was over.

It followed months of opposition protests against Saakashvili's government, after Russia crushed Georgia's attempt in August 2008 to retake control by force of the pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Georgia said the mutiny was a coup attempt and claimed the plotters were supported and financed by Russia -- accusations Moscow called "ridiculous."

The Georgian opposition alleged the plot was masterminded by Saakashvili's government to divert attention from public protests following the war.

Defendants To Appeal

The prosecution's case was based largely on the testimony of other army officers who recounted conversations with the defendants both before and on May 5, during which the latter expressed discontent with the conduct of the top brass during the war with Russia.

The insubordination charges are apparently based on their stated reluctance to participate in a planned military parade in Tbilisi on May 26 in light of the less-than-stellar performance by the army during the August war.

The defendants denied wanting to overthrow the government.

Two of the main defendants, retired Colonel Otanadze and rangers commander Amiridze, refused to testify during the trial. But all three main defendants made closing statements in the last few weeks.

Otanadze, who was jailed for 29 years, said if he had been planning a coup, he would not have recruited Gia Gvaladze, the key witness for the prosecution.

Gorgiashvili, the Mukhrovani tank commander jailed for 19 years, said if he had harbored any intention to topple the government, he would not have told his men that the unit would not leave the territory of the base.

Gorgiashvili did plead guilty to insubordination, admitting that he was against his battalion participating in the planned military parade.

Amiridze, the rangers commander, pointed to what he said was a major flaw in the prosecution's case against him -- that his battalion was said to have planned a 50-kilometer round trip to occupy a building just meters away from its headquarters.

Defense lawyers today said they would appeal the sentences.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report. With news agency reporting