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Georgian Officials' Arrests Test Historic Political Transition

Georgia Arrests Saakashvili-Era Officials
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WATCH: Georgian police detained a further nine former state officials on November 15. The nine, all Interior Ministry officials who worked under President Mikheil Saakashvili, were charged with abuse of power. Similar allegations were brought against the former interior minister and two military commanders arrested last week. (Reuters)

Georgia's new rulers call it a crackdown on corruption and abuse. The country's outgoing leaders say it's a politically motivated witch-hunt.

But by whatever name, a series of criminal cases against officials from President Mikheil Saakashvili's team is casting a pall over Georgia's historic political transition.

About a dozen Georgian Interior Ministry officials, including the head of the ministry's Department for Constitutional Security, were arrested and charged with abuse of office this week, raising fears that the country's first-ever peaceful handover of political power through competitive elections is coming unraveled after little more than a month.

The officials have been charged with crimes ranging from torture and illegal detention to abuse of office.

Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi on November 16, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani took pains to argue that the arrests do not signal a politically motivated persecution of Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM).

"By no means are we witnessing political persecution here," Tsulukiani said. "We have to be able to cohabitate until the next presidential election and as long as Mikheil Saakashvili is in office. We have to coexist in the political space -- this goes without saying. But this does not mean that any crime -- past, present, or future -- will remain unpunished."

Seeing Justice Served?

The Georgian government has been controlled by the Georgian Dream coalition of Prime Minister Bizdina Ivanishvili since historic October 1 parliamentary elections dealt a sharp blow to the ENM. However, Saakashvili remains president and the ENM is a formidable -- albeit minority -- bloc in parliament, forcing an uneasy cohabitation.

Georgian Dream campaigned in part on a pledge to combat corruption within the ENM-led government and views its victory as a mandate for tackling the problem.
Supporters of former Interior and Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia arrive at a city court building in Tbilisi on November 9.
Supporters of former Interior and Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia arrive at a city court building in Tbilisi on November 9.

Shorena Shaverdashvili, editor in chief of the magazine "Liberali," says the elections showed the Georgian people want a functioning system rather than the mere exposure of individual cases of corruption.

"Yes, it was part of their campaign and I think this is one of the biggest demands," Shaverdashvili said. "People want to see -- beyond exposing the cases of corruption -- that 'justice is served.' I'm pretty sure there are quite a number of people who are after revenge, sort of emotionally speaking -- I'm talking about ordinary citizens. But I think everybody really understands that this cannot be about revenge, that this is actually just serving justice."

'Weak Basis'

The ENM has complained loudly that the cases -- which include the arrest on November 7 of former Defense and Interior minister Bacho Akhalaia -- are politically motivated vendettas.

"There is a desire to engage in certain legal action against these individuals -- however, the basis for this, at this moment, is very weak," Giorgi Meladze, the director of the Liberty Institute, a pro-ENM think tank, says. "The impression we get from the current situation is kind of flippant. The investigative structures are faced with a very serious challenge -- to answer these questions, but to remain free of political pressures while doing so. This should be pursued the way it is done in states where there is functional justice system -- observing the imperatives of the rule of law."

Journalist Shaverdashvili says it is crucial going forward that the government prepare its cases transparently and meticulously, not giving in to public pressure or pressure from the ENM.

Gagi Mosiashvili, a lawyer and a member of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, agrees that establishing a fair process is essential.

"I really do not think these individuals are being arrested in response to public demand," Mosiashvili says. "We are talking about the rule of law -- which should form the basis for every single step that the organ that is overseeing this process undertakes."

'We're Not Out In The Streets'

For now, Shaverdashvili says, the system is working and the political environment is not as tense as it was during the election campaign.

"The peaceful transition is still intact," Shaverdashvili says. "We are not at each other's throats. We are not out in the streets, which was a likely scenario especially during the pre-election battle stage, so to speak. I think we are still within the peaceful transition range."

But, she adds, that new information is coming out by the hour and even more prominent Georgian political figures could find themselves caught up in the investigations.

"We might see more detentions of higher-ranking officials," Shaverdashvili says. "It can go all the way up to Saakashvili's very close circle."

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Kharadze contributed to this report