A Georgian court has sentenced a top opposition leader to 4 1/2 years in jail for misspending public funds one day after he was released from an illegal 14-month detention.
Gigi Ugulava, the former mayor of the capital, Tbilisi, and an ally of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, denounced the verdict as trumped-up and part of a "government witch-hunt against political opponents."
"We will appeal the illegal and politically motivated verdict to a higher court," Ugulava's lawyer Beka Basilaia said. "There is no proof whatsoever of my client's guilt."
Ugulava and his lawyers refused to enter the courtroom to listen to the verdict in protest against what he claimed was a "farce trial and a chronicle of a jailing foretold."
Hugging his two teenage daughters, Ugulava delivered an emotional speech standing on the staircase of the court building in Tbilisi as hundreds of supporters chanted his name.
The court originally was considering giving him a nine-year jail term, but it was halved due to the terms of an amnesty act passed by Georgia's parliament in 2012 that covers both the crimes Ugulava was charged with, and the period during which they allegedly were committed.
Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze found Ugulava guilty of the fictitious employment of hundreds of activists from Saakashvili's party in Tbilisi.
But the judge acquitted him, along with former Defense Minister David Kezerashvili - who was tried in the same case in absentia -- on money-laundering charges.
Ugulava, 40, is one of over a dozen former top officials prosecuted after his fiercely pro-Western United National Movement party lost legislative elections to the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition in 2012.
He said his fresh imprisonment was a foregone conclusion on September 17, when he was given a one-day reprieve from jail after the Constitutional Court declared his pretrial detainment to be illegal.
Ugulava accused billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former Georgian prime minister, of orchestrating his prosecution.
Before bailiffs escorted him into custody, Ugulava vowed to defeat the Georgian Dream in the next parliamentary elections, saying that "2016 is the maximum term for Ivanishvili to stay in power."
Ivanishvili stepped down in 2013 and chose his protege, Irakli Garibashvili, to take over as prime minister, but it is widely believed that the tycoon continues to wield power behind the scenes over the small Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people.
Arrests of former top Saakashvili officials -- including ex-Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili -- have prompted warnings from the West over selective justice and using the justice system to persecute political opponents.
During his tenure as the mayor of Tbilisi, charismatic Ugulava sponsored major infrastructure projects and social reforms that helped create a notable improvement in living standards in the Georgian capital.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters