In the eight months since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) ceded power in the wake of the October 1 parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream coalition headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, at least a dozen senior Interior Ministry personnel, including former ministers Vano Merabishvili and Bacho Akhalaya, have been arrested and charged with abuse of office that in some cases resulted in fatalities.
Those arrests came as little surprise in the light of earlier allegations by two of Saakashvili’s close associates of the existence within the upper echelons of the Interior Ministry of a culture of violence and impunity.
Summoned in March to address the ENM parliament faction, Irakli Gharibashvili, whom Ivanishvili named as interior minister in the wake of the October parliament ballot, described the ministry
as "a closed system which was under political diktat" and that functioned as a tool for "repressing" political opponents; he pledged to make it "transparent [and] open to public scrutiny."
Merabishvili served as interior minister from December 2004 until July 2012, when Saakashvili appointed him
prime minister. Merabishvili, in turn, selected Akhalaya as his successor.
In his capacity as interior minister, Merabishvili presided over the much-publicized reform and purge of corruption within the lower echelons of the police force. But at the same time, according to former human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, Merabishvili condoned the formation
within the ministry of "a punitive group that stands above the law and that can liquidate any given individual, if doing so is considered expedient."
The independent daily "Rezonansi" on February 6, 2009 quoted members of the Independent Lawyers' Trade Union as calculating that since 2003, some 70 people had been killed by such "death squads."
Ivanishvili’s new government immediately launched an investigation of Merabishvili’s activities, which concluded he had abused his authority on two occasions. One was an attempt to shield ministry employees implicated in the murder
in January 2006 of banker Sandro Girgvliani. The second centered on illegal surveillance of then-opposition Georgian Dream candidates in the run-up to the parliamentary election. The findings of that probe
were sent to the Prosecutor-General’s Office in late November.
In a TV interview, Merabishvili laughed off as "unserious" the possibility he could be arrested, affirming his readiness
"to stand accountable and to answer all questions" of interest to the judiciary and the public. Just days later, Merabishvili made headlines again by using a forged passport
to visit Armenia as part of a Georgian presidential delegation. He denounced a summons for questioning in connection with that incident as "unprecedented pressure" and attributed it
to his nomination by Saakashvili as new ENM head.
Merabishvili was summoned for questioning again
in early February, together with former Health Minister Zurab Tchiaberashvili, about the spending by ENM activists of some 5.24 million laris ($3.2 million) in public funds for election campaign purposes under the guise of creating more than 20,000 jobs. Both men were subsequently arrested
in mid-May and formally charged with that misuse of public funds.
Merabishvili has since also been charged
with abuse of power in connection with the use of brute force by police in May 2011 to disperse demonstrators in Tbilisi, two of whom were found dead in circumstances that were never adequately explained.
As for Akhalaya, he gained notoriety
as head of the penitentiary system as a results of prison riots in 2005 and 2006 that his detractors say were triggered by his gratuitous mistreatment of prisoners. Akhalaya was forced to resign as interior minister in September 2012 after two independent TV channels aired footage
showing prison guards beating a prisoner and sodomizing him with a broom handle.
Akhalaya was arrested
in early November and is currently on trial on charges of torture, illegal deprivation of freedom, and abuse of his official position.
An investigation conducted by human rights defender Ucha Nanuashvili found evidence that senior Interior Ministry personnel, in the first instance Deputy Minister Gia Lortkipanidze, were behind the clandestine operation last year to recruit young Chechens living in exile in Europe, train and arm them, transport them to a point in eastern Georgia close to the border with Russia, and then kill them in cold blood and claim the credit for thwarting a purported attempt by Russia to infiltrate Georgian territory. Neither Merabishvili nor Akhalaya has been interrogated in connection with that operation, but Georgian journalists have asked how it could have been undertaken without their knowledge.
An investigation by Georgian human rights defender Ucha Nanuashvili found evidence
that that operation was coordinated by Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze.
Human rights activist Giorgi Paresashvili, a former activist for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, conducted his own parallel investigation
into the death of the Chechen fighters that, he says, established the involvement of Akhalaya, Merabishvili, and Lortkipanidze.
First Deputy Interior Minister Gela Khvedelidze was arrested on May 12 on suspicion of having posted to the Internet one week earlier video footage
of Paresashvili engaged in sexual intercourse with two other persons.
Paresashvili suggests that Khvedelidze sought to compromise him in a bid to protect Lortkipanidze, who was Khvedelidze’s close friend.
Khvedelidze was elected to parliament in October as a member of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition and appointed first deputy interior minister a few weeks later. His attempt to compromise Paresashvili raises the question of whether he, and possibly some Interior Ministry personnel, consider that their loyalty to that agency takes precedence over their party affiliation.
Khvedelidze is, moreover, by no means the only Interior Ministry official to have been arrested in connection with the illegal surveillance of persons whose activities were deemed to pose a threat to the authorities. A dozen Interior Ministry officials, including former Deputy Minister Shota Khizanishvili
and Department of Constitutional Security Head Levan Kardava
, were arrested last fall
on charges of illegal surveillance of the then-opposition prior to the October parliamentary elections.
That practice of clandestine surveillance did not end with Georgian Dream’s advent to power, however, despite Gharibashvili’s pledge to make the functioning of his ministry "transparent." A conference in Tbilisi on May 24 established
that during the first four months of 2013, law-enforcement agencies submitted to courts in Tbilisi alone 1,195 requests to approve wire-tapping, of which 1,069, or 89 percent, were approved.
A Transparency International-Georgia representative told that conference that "judges are typically not informed in-depth about the subject matter of the investigation and are not told the results of the surveillance. In the past, judges have rubber-stamped prosecutors' applications for surveillance and communication interception. It is not clear to what extent this is still the practice."
Human rights watchdogs have also called on the Interior Ministry
to dismantle the "black boxes" in the server infrastructure of all major telecommunication companies that enable security agencies to monitor text messages, phone calls, and Internet traffic simultaneously from thousands of mobile phone numbers without any oversight.
The Interior Ministry has not yet responded to those allegations of ongoing wire-tapping. But four days before the Tbilisi conference, the parliament commissions for legal issues and human rights convened a joint session to address the issue of surveillance, at which parliament speaker David Usupashvili underscored the need
to destroy all wire-tapping records not connected with criminal cases and to create “institutionalized guarantees” against continuing that practice. That will require amending existing legislation, according to Deputy Justice Minister Alesandre Baramidze.
Meanwhile, Deputy Interior Minister Levan Izoria said the incriminating records would be destroyed within the next week in the presence of journalists, but it remains unclear whether this has been done.