A Georgian court has sentenced a former prime minister to five and a half years in prison for corruption in a verdict that opposition politicians branded as part of a government witch-hunt against its foes.
Vano Merabishvili was convicted on Monday of abuse of power and other crimes at the trial in the western city of Kutaisi, according to the Reuters news agency.
Prosecutors have accused Merabishvili of giving fictitious jobs to activists, who were involved in his party’s losing parliamentary election campaign in 2012. He has been in pretrial detention since May 2013.
Merabishvili served as prime minister for less than four months in 2012 under Georgia’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, until their United National Movement (UNM) lost a parliamentary election.
This is nothing but political persecution aimed at destroying the main opposition party in Georgia.
“We will appeal against the illegal verdict,” Merabishvili’s lawyer Otar Kakhidze told the AFP news agency. He accused the judge of acting under pressure from the prosecutor’s office.
“This is nothing but political persecution aimed at destroying the main opposition party in Georgia.”
Giga Bokeria, UNM’s foreign secretary and the former security adviser to Saakashvili, said the verdict “destroys political culture in Georgia as political opponents, opposition leaders are being jailed for political reasons”.
“It’s a very bad day not only for justice, but also for democratic tradition in Georgia,” Bokeria said.
“The current government – which ordered the verdict – will pay a high political price.”
Merabishvili is the highest former official to be convicted since the billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, led his coalition to victory in the 2012 parliamentary election, ending nine years of dominance by Saakashvili, whose term as president ended last November.
Dozens of Saakashvili’s allies have been placed under investigation for corruption and abuse of office charges since the end of the former president’s 10-year stay in power, which included a politically damaging 2008 war with neighbour Russia.
Meanwhile, the judge ruled that the actions of former Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, a co-defendant of Merabishvili, constituted neglect of official duty rather than abuse of power and ordered him to pay a fine of $29,000.
Western countries have aired concerns that the new government has used selective justice and political persecution against opponents in the mountainous ex-Soviet republic, which is a pivot of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.
Ivanishvili, whose net worth was valued at $5.3bn by Forbes magazine last year, became Georgia’s prime minister after the 2012 parliamentary election, but stepped down in November in favour of his hand-picked ally, 31-year-old Irakli Garibashvili.
But Ivanishvili is still believed to wield massive influence over Georgia’s politics.
Russia has expressed hope that it can launch a political dialogue with the new Georgian government after breaking off all contacts with Saakashvili’s team in 2008.
Accused by critics of using disproportionate force against mass anti-government rallies in 2007 and 2009, Saakashvili led all-out anti-corruption and anti-crime campaigns that transformed Georgia’s once highly corrupt police force and saw a dramatic drop in crime rates.
After last year’s presidential election, Saakashvili left Georgia and now resides in the United States where he teaches at Tufts University.