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Georgia May Pay After Reclassifying 190 Inmates As 'Political Prisoners'

Inmates recently classified as political prisoners leave a Georgian prison on January 13.

Inmates recently classified as political prisoners leave a Georgian prison on January 13.

Lawmakers in the Georgian parliament are learning there's truth behind the old adage "Be careful what you ask for."

A new bill signed into law by Georgian parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili resulted in the release of 190 people who had been designated as political prisoners, courtesy of a December resolution.

That resolution followed October parliamentary elections in which the United National Movement (ENM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili was defeated by the Georgian Dream coalition of his rival, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is prime minister. The ENM is now a minority in parliament.

President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

Saakashvili vetoed the amnesty, describing the prisoners as Russian spies and criminals. The veto was overturned by parliament, however, and the prisoners were released on January 13.

Georgian public defender Ucha Nanuashvili called it a "historic day," saying the "persecution of those who were arrested on political motives is now over."

Deputy Eka Beselia, the head of parliament's human rights committee, was quoted as saying that the cases of the political prisoners should be declassified so that "society can see that those inmates were, in fact, Saakashvili's hostages and personal prisoners."

But a move intended to right wrongs and score political points at Saakashvili's expense may not have been thought all the way through. The problem is that classifying the 190 people as political prisoners means they are now eligible for financial compensation from the state, based on Georgian laws that were already on the books.

David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, calls the move a possible "miscalculation."

"If they had considered the ramifications of their actions," Kakabadze says, "perhaps they wouldn't have granted the status of political prisoner to so many inmates at once."

Lia Mukhashavria

Lia Mukhashavria

Prominent Georgian lawyer and rights activist Lia Mukhashavria concurs, telling RFE/RL that "the decision by parliament is, in effect, proof that all persons, in each and every case, were illegally arrested and imprisoned for political reasons."

Therefore, she says, from a legal standpoint, "they don't need to seek any additional proof of their illegal imprisonment. This is a good basis to appeal to the courts for moral and financial compensation. And many are going to do that."

Giorgi Demetradze, a former striker for Georgia's national soccer team, says he is certain to seek financial damages for the income he lost during his time in prison.

Demetradze was convicted in March 2011 on charges of colluding with criminal elements, the so-called "thieves in law." Demetradze, who previously filed a complaint over his arrest with the European Court of Human Rights, says he was forced to turn down lucrative offers from clubs in Ukraine and Cyprus due to his "illegal" imprisonment. The state, he says, has an obligation to compensate him. He says he has not yet decided on an amount.

Another former prisoner considering such a course is Vakhtang Maisaia, a well-known political analyst and former diplomat who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of spying for Russia.

"What I can say for sure is that I will follow this case to the end," Maisaia told RFE/RL's Georgian Service hours after his release. "Every allegation, every accusation has to be investigated in full. And I will, by all means, follow this to the end, on all levels -- political and judicial."

At the least, Maisaia says, he intends to appeal his case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague due to its jurisdiction over the charges on which he was convicted -- spying during wartime.

Maisaia, who served as a counselor at the Georgian mission at NATO in 2004-08, blames his long-held negative attitudes toward the Saakashvili "regime" and his "international contacts" for getting him into trouble. He says Saakashvili accused him of "damaging Georgia's image abroad."

Saakashvili, he says, should be held criminally responsible not only regarding his own case but for his actions "against the entire Georgian nation."

"I was his personal prisoner," Maisaia says. "I have no doubt about that."

Now, the question is how much is that going to cost the state?

-- Grant Podelco, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service

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