Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has incurred harsh criticism by naming as his new defense minister Bacho Akhalaya, who during his tenure as head of the Justice Ministry department responsible for overseeing prisons was accused of triggering two separate prison disturbances by arbitrarily maltreating prisoners.
Announcing Akhalaya's appointment to succeed David Sikharulidze at an August 27 session of the National Security Council, Saakashvili noted
that Akhalaya graduated from a German university and speaks several foreign languages. Saakashvili also said
a "stricter hand" is required within the Defense Ministry, as, despite Sikharulidze's efforts, "much needs to be done" to improve combat readiness.
Sikharulidze's plans for doing so were outlined in a white paper
he unveiled early this year, shortly after his appointment in December 2008. According to unconfirmed media reports in mid-March, Akhalaya was so incensed by that blueprint that he stormed into Sikharulidze's office and tore it to shreds. Some newspapers also attributed the resignation in early March 2009 of Chief of General Staff Vladimer Chachibaya to Akhalaya's aggressive "meddling."
Akhalaya, who is 28 and has served since last December as deputy defense minister, told the Security Council session that his priorities will be modernization (including better equipment and training), strengthening peace, and integration with NATO.
Akhalaya is regarded as a protege of powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, and opposition politicians reacted
to his latest appointment with consternation, predicting that it effectively subordinates the armed forces to the Interior Ministry. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said it represents "the complete subsuming of the army into the Interior Ministry," and therefore runs counter to the democratic principle that the armed forces should be depoliticized.
Republican Party leader David Usupashvili described Akhalaya's appointment as "the most dangerous ever made" by Saakashvili in his 5 1/2 years as president.
The Conservative Party issued a statement terming it "a step towards the criminalization and destruction" of Georgia's armed forces. That statement further suggested that Saakashvili "needs the army to protect his regime, rather than to defend the state."
Former Defense Minister Irakli Batiashvili was quoted by the weekly "Mteli kvira" on August 31 as similarly suggesting that Akhalaya's brief is to transform the army into "a punitive force."
Outgoing human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari told the Georgian daily "Rezonansi
" there are solid grounds for launching criminal proceedings against Akhalaya for actions he committed while heading the prison system that violated the law.
Akhalaya's mistreatment of prisoners is widely believed to have triggered two separate prison riots, in Rustavi in January 2006 and in Tbilisi in March 2006. On the first occasion, he is said
to have forced prisoners to strip naked and run around in the snow in sub-zero temperatures, while on the second he was accused by a lawyer representing several prison inmates of unspecified "excesses" that drove prisoners to riot and attack prison guards. Police deployed to the jail opened fire on prisoners, and seven of them were killed before order was eventually restored.
Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari subsequently made public the evidence suggesting that Akhalaya himself planned the disturbance with the aim of subsequently taking credit for successfully suppressing an attempt to "destabilize the political situation.
* The headline of this blog item has been amended from the original.