Following the arrest
of former Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, who has since been charged
with exceeding his authority, wrongful detention, and torture, and of a dozen senior Interior Ministry officials, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip H. Gordon has stressed to Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili the need to avoid creating the impression that the ongoing investigation of alleged abuses selectively and unfairly targets Ivanishvili’s political adversaries.
Lawmakers from President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM), which Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition defeated in last month’s parliamentary ballot, complained two weeks ago
to foreign diplomats in Tbilisi that the arrest of Akhalaia and two senior army commanders and a tax investigation launched at the Georgian Public Broadcaster were politically motivated.
Meeting with Ivanishvili
in Tbilisi on November 16, Gordon acknowledged that “everybody wants to see rule of law implemented and anybody who has committed a crime to be held accountable. But at the same time it is essential to avoid any perception or reality of selective prosecutions....In that context it is absolutely critical to be scrupulous in both the reality and perception of how this process is working. If it looks like or it is designed solely to go after political adversaries or it’s not done in a transparent way, then the whole country will pay the price.”
Ivanishvili said it was understandable that the arrests have raised “many question marks.” He said his government will continue its efforts
to make it clear to Georgia’s Western partners that “each and every action undertaken by us in this regard is in compliance with democracy, and is not in any way a political persecution or selective justice.”
Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, for her part, told journalists the same day
that “what is happening today is not political persecution. What is happening is an investigation into who committed a crime and who suffered from it.”
“Having held a senior position in the past does not of itself bestow immunity [from prosecution],” she added.
Also on November 16, Georgian Prosecutor-General Archil Kbilashvili made public
the charges brought against former Deputy Interior Minister Shota Khizanishvili and 10 other Interior Ministry officials, including the head of the Department of Constitutional Security, Levan Kardava. The case centers on illegal phone tapping and surveillance through malware software of known opponents of the former Georgian opposition.
Persons and organizations targeted for such surveillance include former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, Kbilashvili said.
The Russian daily “Kommersant” made the point on November 19 that Khizanishvili and Kardava are unlikely to have acted without the knowledge and explicit approval of their boss, Vano Merabishvili, who headed the Interior Ministry from December 2004 to June 2012.
Merabishvili has long been regarded
as the eminence grise behind Saakashvili, who tasked him
in the wake of the ENM’s election defeat with revamping the party in order to “return to power.” Merabishvili said on November 16
that the arrest of Khizanishvili, whom he described as a close friend, was intended to exert pressure on him personally, but it “will not scare us.”
As yet unclear is whether President Saakashvili was aware of the illegal computer and phone tapping allegedly undertaken by the Interior Ministry. The Russian daily “Gazeta”
quoted Kbilashvili as saying last week that one of the men arrested “indirectly mentioned” President Saakashvili’s name while being interrogated. The prosecutor-general did not elaborate.
The Georgian Constitution
makes provision for the impeachment of the president in the event that the Constitutional Court rules at the request of no fewer than one third of parliament deputies that he has violated the constitution, or the Supreme Court rules that he is guilty of treason or some other serious crime.
Ivanishvili, however, told the Austrian daily “Die Presse”
that he does not want to see Saakashvili impeached as it would look like “political revenge.” At the same time, Ivanishvili said he cannot prevent justice from taking its course. Moreover, Justice Minister Tsulukiani has said
“we must find a way of coexisting with Mikheil Saakashvili until the presidential election takes place” in October 2013.