Concern Over Georgia's Saakashvili Arrest Warrant

Analysts note that legal moves look like political retaliation and could alienate allies in the EU and US.

Concern Over Georgia's Saakashvili Arrest Warrant

Analysts note that legal moves look like political retaliation and could alienate allies in the EU and US.

While the Georgian government insists that an arrest warrant issued for former president Mikhail Saakashvili is part of a campaign to restore the rule of law, its Western allies warn that the charges appear to be politically motivated.

On July 28, prosecutors charged Saakashvili with abuse of power over the violent dispersal of protests in Tbilisi in 2007, and with forcibly seizing control of the Imedi television company. They followed these with fresh charges on August 5, alleging that Saakashvili organised a 2005 attack on Valeri Gelashvili, an opposition member of parliament. This was allegedly in retaliation for an interview in which Gelashvili accused the government of seizing his property and commented critically on the president’s personal life.

The latest allegations against Saakashvili are based on evidence from former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili and ex-speaker Nino Burjanadze, both of whom were once his allies.

A court issued a detention order for the ex-president, although he has been out of the country ever since his second presidential term expired in late 2013.

Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party were replaced in government by the Georgian Dream coalition created by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia.

UNM lawmakers said the charges were politically motivated and would harm Georgia’s chances of moving closer to the West.

“All this is happening at a time when, basically, a new world order is coming into being; when, owing to the events in Ukraine and the destroyed [MH17] airliner, in front of our eyes a new dividing line is being created. On one side stands the whole democratic world; on the other side stands Russia,” said David Bakradze, the UNM's parliamentary leader. “While this is happening, the Georgian government is taking action that our main allies are warning us against. We must understand that, at this critical time, it will divide us from our main strategic allies [and move us] to the other side of the line, to Russia.”

For his part, Saakashvili made it clear he had no intention of complying with the arrest warrant.

“I will stay far away when summoned by the prosecutors of Russian oligarch Ivanishvili, but I will come when I am summoned by the Georgian people,” he wrote on his Facebook page on August 5.

Many politicians in Europe and the United States have expressed disquiet about the charges against the former president.

Both the US State Department and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton issued statements noting that they would be following the cases closely to make sure the process was fair.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, “Georgia authorities deviate from European path in using justice system for revenge. Does damage to the country.”

Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a member of the European Parliament, said the arrest warrant ran counter to the obligations which Georgia undertook to last month when it signed an Association Agreement with the European Union.

“The recent series of politically motivated actions again the country's main opposition party reveal that the government is not taking the Association Agreement seriously,” he said in a statement. “I urge the Georgian government to fully comply with the letter and the spirit of the Association Agreement, to abandon sterile political conflicts, and to focus on developing Georgia’s economy and to work in the best interests of the people.”

However, Georgian Dream insisted that the legal action was backed up evidence given by thousands of people.

“Georgia is credited by its international partners with having made great democratic progress since the change of government in 2012,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal. “The prosecutor's office has received nearly 20,000 citizen complaints alleging serious human rights abuses under the former ruling party, implicating the highest levels of government."

“The authorities have a legal duty to investigate violations of human rights,” she continued. “Saakashvili has been charged in relation to a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters and the suppression of media, as documented by Human Rights Watch. These alleged actions sparked an international outcry in 2007, and consistent demands for those responsible to be held accountable.”

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said the courts should be allowed to rule on whether the defendants were guilty or not, and promised to ensure a transparent and fair process.

He added that the case against Saakashvili was not intended to harm Georgia’s integration with the EU – to which Bildt responded on Twitter, “If [Garibashvili] does not want to listen to the best friends of his country in EU that’s his choice. We take note”.

Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told IWPR that even if the court case were legally impeccable, it could still cause problems for Georgia’s ties with its allies.

“I don’t think everything will be terrible, but we will need to be very careful, since our Western partners have got the impression that this process is politically motivated,” he said. “It is an unfortunate time to do it. With events in Ukraine, the general political tensions in the world, and the anniversary of [Georgia's 2008] war with Russia, it is not good for our country that this is happening now,” he continued. “It looks as though the government has hurried to do this, since they aren't making much progress in other areas, and they want to stress how they are fulfilling their promise to restore the rule of law.”

Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist in Georgia. 

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