KUTAISI, Georgia -- Authorities in Georgia have arrested former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili and former Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili.
Georgian prosecutor Shota Tkeshelashvili told journalists in the western city of Kutaisi that the two have been charged with embezzling public funds.
Tkeshelashvili said Merabishvili, Chiaberashvili, and "other individuals" had planned and enacted "illicit actions in order to buy off voters in favor of the United National Movement in the parliamentary elections of October 1, 2012, as well as to sponsor covertly the aforementioned party with state funds."
Both Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili are close associates of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Reacting to the news, Saakashvili compared the two arrests to the jailing in Ukraine of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
"You know that in Ukraine the former prime minister was arrested based on much more serious charges than the ones made against Merabishvili. Since then, what kind of situation is Ukraine facing? The integration process with the European Union is frozen. For two years this country has not seen any progress with regard to the European Union or NATO. It has problems in its bilateral relations with every leading European country and the United States," Saakashvili said.
Merabishvili is the general-secretary of Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM); Chiaberashvili is currently the governor of the eastern province of Kakheti.
The two were summoned to the regional prosecutor’s office in Kutaisi on May 21 where investigators questioned them regarding the alleged misuse of money meant for a program to fight unemployment.
Former Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili
Tkeshelashvili said additional charges connected with the death of a banker and the violent dispersal of a 2011 demonstration are pending against Merabishvili.
The former officials will be held in Kutaisi's pretrial detention center until a court decides if they should remain in custody or if they will be eligible for bail.
Giorgi Tevdoradze, a lawmaker from Saakashvili's party, called the arrests of two leading members of the party "nothing short of political terrorism."
Another ENM lawmaker, Giorgi Gabashvili, also told journalists in Kutaisi that the arrests are politically motivated.
"The decision made by [Georgian Prime Minister] Bidzina Ivanishvili to arrest his immediate political opponent Ivane Merabishvili, as well as Zurab Chiaberashvili, is a solely political decision," he said. "It has nothing to do with justice."
Meanwhile, Ivanishvili told journalists in the capital, Tbilisi, that the arrests have nothing to do with politics.
"I think the accusation of political persecution is so weak that [our opponents] cannot use it anymore," he said. "Both Europe and the United States have understood well that we do not conduct selective justice, that there will be no political persecution. I can repeat one more time that under no circumstances are we going to allow political persecution."
Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream bloc defeated Saakashvili's party in the general elections in October. Since then, many of Saakashvili's allies have come under investigation or have been charged with wrongdoing.
With additional reporting by Apsny.ge