TBILISI -- A court in Georgia has sentenced opposition leader and former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to five years in prison following the outbreak of violence during mass protest last June, raising concerns from the United States over political interference in the judiciary.
Okruashvili, the leader of the Victorious Georgia opposition party, was arrested in late July over the June 20-21 unrest outside the Georgian parliament, when thousands rallied after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov occupied the Georgian speaker's seat in the legislature, a symbolic reminder of Russia's unwanted influence over its smaller southern neighbor.
The Tbilisi City Court sentenced Okruashvili on April 13 after finding him guilty of organizing and taking part in the violence that marred rallies, which lasted for weeks as opposition parties insisted that Georgia's electoral system unfairly favored the ruling Georgian Dream party and demanded it be changed to a proportional system from 2020.
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said in an April 14 statement that the case amounted to "political interference" and "the selective use of justice."
The United States and the European Union had called on the Georgian government, political parties, and civil society to engage in a "calm and respectful dialogue" after the protests, which were suppressed forcefully by the police.
On March 8, after U.S.- and EU- brokered talks, leaders of Georgia's ruling and opposition parties agreed to a deal on election reforms.
In its April 14 statement regarding Okruashvili's conviction, the U.S. Embassy called on the Georgian government and opposition to stick to the March 8 agreement's clauses.
"The case casts a shadow over the impartial application of justice -- a concern the March 8 joint statement was intended to dispel. We urge all signatories to uphold the letter and spirit of the March 8 agreement," the U.S. Embassy said.