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Former Georgian Defense Minister Jailed

Former high-ranking Georgian official Bacho Akhalaya, pictured here in 2009
Former high-ranking Georgian official Bacho Akhalaya, pictured here in 2009
On October 28, a day after Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected to succeed Mikhail Saakashvili as president of Georgia, the Tbilisi municipal court sentenced one of Saakashvili’s close associates, Bacho Akhalaya, to three years and nine months in prison on several charges of the torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

That brutality reportedly precipitated a riot in March 2006 at a Tbilisi jail during which seven prisoners were shot dead. Akhalaya pleaded not guilty to the charges, which he said were politically motivated; his lawyer plans to appeal the sentence.

Akhalaya, 33, was one of the most controversial members of Saakashvili’s team, with a reputation for irascibility and gratuitous brutality. A lawyer by training, he served in 2004-2005 as deputy to then-human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari before being appointed head of the department within the Interior Ministry that oversaw the penitentiary system.

It was in that capacity that he is said to have mistreated prisoners. In January 2006, he reportedly forced inmates of a jail in Rustavi to strip naked and run around in the snow in sub-zero temperatures.

Akhalaya was appointed deputy defense minister in December 2008, four months after Georgia’s ill-advised and disastrous offensive against South Ossetia. He reportedly soon came into conflict with then-Defense Minister David Sikharulidze.

According to unconfirmed media reports, Akhalaya was so incensed by Sikharulidze’s white paper outlining plans for enhancing the combat readiness of the armed forces that he stormed into Sikharulidze’s office in March 2009 and tore the document to shreds in front of him.

Just months later, however, Saakashvili named Akhalaya to succeed Sikharulidze as defense minister on the grounds that the army "needs a strong hand." Republican Party leader David Usupashvili (now parliamentary speaker) deplored that appointment as the most dangerous one Saakashvili had ever made.

In July 2012, Saakashvili named long-time Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili as the prime minister and Akhalaya to succeed him as interior minister. But Akhalaya was constrained to resign that post two months later following the screening by independent TV channels of video footage showing prison guards beating and sodomizing with a broom handle a prisoner at Tbilisi’s Prison Number Eight.

Akhalaya was arrested on November 7, 2012, a month after Georgian Dream’s parliamentary election victory. He was charged with exceeding his official powers on the basis of the testimony of six servicemen whom he had insulted and ordered beaten in October 2011 for having bad-mouthed him. He was later charged with "illegal deprivation of freedom" for having allegedly beaten a man and then held him briefly in illegal confinement, and with torture.

After a trial that lasted several months, Akhalaya was acquitted of those charges on August 1. He was likewise acquitted in a separate trial of charges of cruelty based on his alleged mistreatment in August-September 2012 of seven Interior Ministry spetsnaz servicemen because of their professed support for Georgian Dream, then still in opposition to Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement.

Meanwhile, new charges of abuse of power were brought against Akhalaya on October 18 in connection with his suspected intervention in 2006 as head of the penitentiary system to create privileged conditions in prison for four Interior Ministry personnel sentenced for the murder in January 2005 of banker Sandro Girgvliani. The evening before he was killed, Girgvliani had been involved in a heated argument in a Tbilisi bar with a group of Interior Ministry staffers accompanying the wife of then-Interior Minister Merabishvili, whom some analysts identify as Akhalaya’s protector.

Akhalaya thus remains in pre-trial detention. The possibility exists that further charges may be brought against him in connection with the clandestine recruitment in early 2012 of young Chechen fighters who say the Georgian authorities trained and equipped them and promised to help them enter Russia from Georgian territory to join the ranks of the North Caucasus insurgency. Instead, 11 of them were killed in a shootout in late August 2012 with Georgian special forces near Lapanquri in eastern Georgia.

One of the survivors has since alleged that the operation was planned and overseen by the Georgian Defense Ministry, and that Akhalaya in his capacity as defense minister met with the Chechens on a daily basis.

On October 22, Georgia’s public defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, announced the creation of a 12-person commission to collect information about the Lapanquri debacle.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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