Saturday, December 01, 2012

BLOG: Georgia's Arrests: Who’s Next? By Giorgi Lomsadze (

( If they were to bet on which high-ranking Georgian official goes to prison next, many Georgians would put their money on the nation’s erstwhile top cop, Vano Merabishvili.
Image-wise, the 44-year-old Merabishvili has always been a combination of good cop and bad cop. As interior minister from 2004 until this July, he was praised for the overhaul of the country's once notoriously corrupt police force, but criticized for bending the laws to make sure nothing and no one could challenge his boss, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Some accused him of turning Georgia into one big prison cell, while others credited him for cleaning crime off city streets.
Many Georgians predict that now, in a process that would make for a Bertolt Brecht play, he may soon get a taste of prison cells himself.
It's a prediction that Merabishvili, now the target of an investigation into alleged abuse of office at the interior ministry, did not neglect to make in a televised interview on November 25.

The interior ministry has claimed its ex-boss let two of his former associates, linked to the notorious 2006 murder of a young man by interior ministry employees, continue to work in the ministry after they had been dismissed.
Merabishvili, who now acts as general secretary of Saakashvili's United National Movement, has not yet been charged. Terming the affair "political vengeance," he's dismissed the allegations as "not serious."
But the allegations against Merabishvili do not end there.
The Ivanishvili investigators say they have found reams of illegal, secret recordings of private conversations by the president’s opponents made under Merabishvili's tenure. The interior ministry allegedly even recruited a teenage computer geek to design a malware that allowed spying on the computers of Saakashvili’s rivals.
One of the photographers, Giorgi Abdaladze, just released footage in which police officials are shown forcing him to dismiss his attorney and go with a lawyer they suggested. The footage was handed over to the eager hands of prosecutors (and to TV9, co-owned by Ivanishvili's wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze).
Abdaladze says that the arrests came as retribution for the photographers' coverage of the violent dispersal of Tbilisi demonstrations in 2011, and has pointed the finger of blame at Merabishvili, among others.
Merabishvili has not yet responded to this latest claim, but, last summer, assured a delegation of concerned journalists that there was sound evidence against the photographers.
But as the momentum of the allegations against Merabishvili gathers pace, the extent to which the public will believe a repeat of such assurances could prove key.
In terms of public approval ratings, Merabishvili eclipsed President Saakashvili ahead of the October 1 parliamentary election -- even Ivanishvili, at one point, said he liked him.
Assuming those popularity ratings were, to some degree, correct, taking Merabishvili down now could prove a roll of the dice for public tolerance of the government's ever-multiplying investigations.
Georgians expected Ivanishvili to correct the wrongs of the Saakashvili era, but some fear that the government's alleged pursuit of justice has started to take off into a separate orbit -- namely, that of political-clan warfare.
While telling journalists on Thursday that now is not the time to try and impeach Saakashvili, the prime minister has called for not waiting until next October's presidential election, but moving ahead now with the constitutional changes that would decrease the powers of the presidency and increase those of his own office.
As opposition members, Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his comrades turned to the international community for help whenever they thought the government of Saakashvili was harassing them. Now, faced with this streak of arrests, the Saakashvili people are doing the same.  
They appear to have an audience with an open ear. Concerns are running strong among the international community that the detentions could destroy the only real opposition force in Georgia.
In a November 26 trip to Tbilisi, European Union foreign policy boss Catherine Ashton is expected to stress the value of the "impartial application of justice and the rule of law" to both Ivanishvili and Saakashvili.

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