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Opposition Activists Held on Arms Charges
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 23 Mar.'09 / 22:25

Ten persons, nine of them affiliated with former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze’s party, have been arrested on charges of illegal purchase of firearms, the Georgian Interior Ministry said on March 23.

Earlier on the same day Democratic Movement–United Georgia (DMUG) party said nine of its activists were arrested in Batumi and Tbilisi, accusing the authorities of launching “campaign of terror” against its activists. The Interior Ministry said it was not claiming “a political conspiracy” behind the arms purchase.

“The Interior Ministry, along with other preventive measures, is constantly monitoring illegal turnover of arms,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

“Recently several groups have been identified, which were showing interest in purchasing automatic firearms. Several members of these groups were arrested this morning. The Interior Ministry was not planning to make any statement until the end of the investigation, but some political and public organizations have responded to the incident and the issue was seriously politicized. The representatives of some political parties made tough statements. Hence, the Interior Ministry is providing to the society a part of evidence proving criminal activities of the detainees. Other evidences and information will be unveiled later.”

The evidence involves six separate episodes of covertly recorded footage of what seems to be a sting operation by undercover agents acting as arms dealers. In the fist footage a man identified as Giorgi Bolashvili, an activist from DMUG youth wing, negotiates with undercover agent terms for purchase of CZ-75 semi-automatic pistol for USD 400 and expresses desire to buy AKS-U submachine gun – a shortened version of Kalashnikov assault rifle. In the second footage a man identified as Bolashvili’s cousin with the same first and second name – Giorgi Bolashvili meets the same undercover agent to buy the firearm. In the third episode a man identified as Vakhtang Narsia, an activist from DMUG youth wing, holding apparently UZI submachine gun, is discussing with another man – supposedly also an undercover agent – mobilization of supporters. In the fourth footage, Mamuka Shengelia, a driver of Badri Bitsadze, husband of Nino Burjanadze, is seen discussing specifications and price of various firearms with a person – apparently also an undercover agent.  In the fifth and sixth footage a person identified as Giorgi Tsertsvadze is seen – his name was not listed among the DMUG’s arrested activists released earlier by the party itself. Tsertsvadze, according to the Interior Ministry, was acting under the instructions of Shengelia to purchase the firearms. The sixth footage, also recorded covertly in what seems to be an apartment room, Tsertsvadze is checking various types of firearms massed in a corner of the room.

Shota Utiashvili, head of the Interior Ministry’s analytical department, has strongly denied any politics behind the arrest of these persons and also said that the investigation was not claiming there was “a political conspiracy.”

“What we know is that there are people who have showed interest in buying weapons and have bought weapons and they are arrested,” Utiashvili said.

Nino Burjanadze, the leader of DMUG, said after the Interior Ministry’s statement that she was ready to cooperate with the investigation. She, however, said the evidence put forth by the investigation was not enough and needed further scrutiny.

“Not a single normal court will consider the evidences shown on TV as enough evidence to prove the charges that have been made,” she told journalists. “We are familiar with such ‘video evidence’ and how they are made up. The footage needs very serious expertise. Probably the Interior Ministry will make this expertise. We will also try to make this expertise through our independent sources: when the footage was recorded, in what context, when and how the footage was edited and so on.”

“We are not rejecting to cooperate with the investigation,” Burjanadze said and also added that the footage provided by the Interior Ministry would fail to confirm the allegations that her party was planning “armed rebellion and was setting up armed groups for this purpose.”

Earlier this month the Georgian tabloid Alia reported that Bitsadze had a plan to set up armed groups. In an unusual move, the Rustavi 2 TV, picked up the newspaper article and covered the allegations extensively in its primetime news program on March 10.

Meanwhile, it also emerged on March 23, that an activist from the Movement for Salvation of Georgia was arrested and charged with plotting a coup. The Movement for Salvation of Georgia was set up late last year and has not been an active player in the Georgian politics.

Shota Utiashvili of the Interior Ministry told Civil.Ge that this arrest was not related with arrest of ten persons over illegal arms purchase. He said the Interior Ministry would unveil more details on the matter later.

Some opposition politicians have expressed doubts about the credibility of the evidence put forth by the Interior Ministry. Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative Party, which along with DMUG and some other parties is planning to launch protest rallies from April 9 to demand President Saakashvili’s resignation, said: “It was entirely a political stage show in which some fooled persons are taking part.” 

Eka Beselia from Movement for United Georgia Party – also from the same group of parties planning April rallies, said: “There is no confidence towards such evidence put forth by the Interior Ministry.”

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