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Georgia sentences former premier to 5.5 years in jail

TBILISI: A court in Georgia on Monday sentenced former prime minister Vano Merabishvili to five and a half years in prison for embezzlement in a case his lawyer and allies denounced as political persecution.
The court found Merabishvili, who headed the government of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, guilty of giving fictitious jobs to activists who were involved in his party’s losing parliamentary election campaign in 2012.
Judge Natia Barbakadze also issued a $27,000 fine to Merabishvili’s co-defendant, former health minister Zurab Chiaberashvili.
Merabishvili, who has been in pretrial detention since May 2013, had served as secretary general of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party, which was defeated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition.
“We will appeal the illegal verdict,” Merabishvili’s lawyer Otar Kakhidze told AFP, accusing 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,” he said.
UNM’s foreign secretary and the former security adviser to Saakashvili, Giga Bokeria, 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 told journalists.
“The current government — which ordered the verdict — will pay a high political price.”
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 neighbor Russia.
Western officials have expressed concern over any investigations that could be perceived as being politically motivated, but the Georgian Dream government has repeatedly rejected any political motives behind the prosecutions.
Ivanishvili, whose net worth was valued at $5.3 billion by Forbes magazine last year, became Georgia’s prime minister after the 2012 parliamentary election, but stepped down in November in favor 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.
Merabishvili, 45, is one of Saakashvili’s closest allies who served as his interior minister and was appointed as PM just ahead of October 2012 elections.
Accused by critics of using disproportionate force against mass anti-government rallies in 2007 and 2009, Saakashvili led all-out anti-graft 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.