Gigi Ugulava (right), who was suspended from Tbilisi mayoral office by the court, speaks with capital city municipality’s leadership on December 22. His first deputy Sevdia Ugrekhelidze (left) will become an acting mayor of Tbilisi. Photo: Tbilisi City Hall
Court suspended mayor of the capital Tbilisi and one of the leaders of UNM opposition party, Gigi Ugulava, from office after he was charged in connection with alleged misspending of GEL 48.18 million of public funds in 2011-2012.
After the charges were filed against Ugulava on December 18, the prosecution filed two separate motions to the Tbilisi City Court; in one of them prosecutors were requesting for Ugulava’s pre-trial detention and in another – his suspension from the office pending final verdict into the charges against him.
A public court hearing into the first motion over requested pre-trial detention, presided by judge Dali Metreveli, started on Saturday evening and lasted for several hours. Late on Saturday night the judge declined the motion and instead ordered GEL 50,000 bail.
The ruling was met with applause by Ugulava’s supporters in the courtroom, but the Tbilisi mayor himself warned supporters not to get carried away as the court had yet to take decision on a separate motion in which prosecutors were asking for his suspension from the office.
He also called on the Tbilisi City Court not to yield to pressure, which he claimed was exerted by the government. Ugulava also asked the court that although it had the right to decide about this motion without listening to parties’ oral arguments, not to opt for such option and to hold the public hearing.
After midnight on Sunday, Ugulava posted on his Facebook page that at about 1am an aide of judge phoned him to notify that prosecution’s request for his suspension from the office was discussed by the same judge Dali Metreveli without hearing oral arguments and that he was suspended.
“The court shared prosecution’s reasonable assumption that as far as charges filed against [Ugulava] are directly related to the activities of the Tbilisi mayor, retaining of the post by Ugulava will hinder the investigation and gathering of evidence into the case. For the purpose of preventing creating obstacles to the investigation, the court found it reasonable for the accused to be dismissed from the post,” the Tbilisi City Court said in a statement on Sunday afternoon.
Asked during a press conference why the ruling was delivered without holding hearing of oral arguments of the parties, court’s spokesperson responded that it’s a usual practice to discuss “such motions” without hearing oral arguments.
One of Ugulava’s defense lawyers, Gizo Uglava, said the ruling of the Tbilisi City Court will be appealed to the higher court.
Ugulava’s first deputy, Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, will assume the role of acting mayor.
“We were ready for such a development,” Ugrekhelidze said on Sunday, adding that at one of the recent government meetings PM Irakli Garibashvili even “wished me to soon replace Ugulava” on the Tbilisi mayor’s post.
Speaking at a meeting with the capital city municipality leadership on Sunday, Gigi Ugulava said that the court’s decision was a result of pressure exerted by the government.
MP Davit Bakradze, leader of the UNM parliamentary minority group said on Sunday, that the court ruling will have “very grave consequences for the future of Georgia’s democracy.”
“With this decision taken at 1am behind the closed doors without hearing any oral arguments… the court and the authorities have undertaken a step, which is very controversial from the legal point of view and very grave for the future of this country from the political point of view,” Bakradze said.
“This precedent gives an opportunity to the prosecution to settle score against any elected official,” he said, adding that with this decision the court and the prosecution sent a message to the Tbilisites that “they do not care about Tbilisites’ opinion” expressed in 2010 elections when Ugulava was elected with 55.2% of votes.
He said that the UNM leadership will gather on Sunday to discuss how the party will react to these developments.
Charges, which were filed against Ugulava on December 18, involve allegations that he was behind a scheme through which GEL 48.18 million of municipal funds were funneled to cover UNM party’s various expenses in 2011-2012.
Ugulava says charges against him are part of government’s “political prosecution” against the opposition, especially ahead of the local elections next year in which he will seek re-election as Tbilisi mayor.
Ugulava is already standing trial into similar, but unrelated charges, which were filed against him in February 2013. At the time prosecution was asking the court GEL 1 bail and suspending Ugulava from the office – both of these motions were declined by the court at the time.