Tbilisi City Court rejected on Saturday a motion for release of Bacho Akhalaia, former defense and interior minister, charged with torture, exceeding power and illegal imprisonment, on GEL 50,000 bail.
At a preliminary court hearing on March 2 Eka Areshidze, the judge presiding over the case, shared prosecution’s argument and declined the motion by Akhalaia’s defense lawyers citing persisting risk that if released Akhalaia could influence witnesses.
The decision prompted Akhalaia’s supporters, among them his relatives and UNM lawmakers, who were packing the courtroom, to walk out in protest, accusing the judge of bias in favor of the prosecution.
The trial is currently on the stage of preliminary hearing, when the judge mainly decides about admissibility of evidence submitted by the parties, after which the hearing on the merits of the criminal case has to start.
In early November when Akhalaia was arrested and sent to pre-trial detention, he was initially charged with “exceeding official powers” involving an allegation of abuse of soldiers in October, 2011 when he was the defense minister.
He was then charged with “illegal deprivation of freedom” involving an allegation of beating a man and then holding him in illegal confinement for several hours in September, 2011.
Under the torture charges, which were added against Akhalaia in mid-November, he is accused of inhuman treatment of more than dozen of army personnel in February, 2010 when he served as defense minister.
Akhalaia denies allegations; standing in the dock he told the judge that all the charges against him were fabricated and politically motivated. He also said that the prosecution had no evidence against him to prove his guilt. Akhalaia also told the court that even the prosecution’s witnesses would speak in his favor during the trial, “as they will say the truth” before the court.
The trial, apart of Akhalaia, also involves seven other co-defendants, among them Giorgi Kalandadze, former chief of army staff, who faces charges with exceeding power and illegal imprisonment. Unlike Akhalaia, Kalandadze was released on bail shortly after he was arrested in November, 2012.
A team of three prosecutors plan to call about 140 witnesses during the trial and the defense requested the judge to interview about 50 witnesses.
The defense lawyers request to call Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani; Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili and his deputy Davit Mchedlishvili was, however, rejected by the judge on March 2.
Also on March 2 the prosecution tried to motion a request for the case to be tried by jurors instead. In January the Parliament amended the criminal procedures code to allow applying jury trials to the cases in which former officials face criminal charges.
The presiding judge, however, told the prosecution that it was early at this stage of the trial to consider such a motion involving request for a jury trial and the hearing proceeded with discussion of other issues.
The defense filed a motion requesting the judge to declare charges against all eight co-dependents (two of which are at large) inadmissible for further trial on the grounds of lack of evidence. The preliminary court hearing was adjourned at that point and the judge is expected to announce her decision on this motion when the court reconvenes on March 5.
Apart of the charges which are being heard at the ongoing trial, the prosecutor’s office has filed additional charges against Akhalaia on March 1 and March 2.
On March 1 prosecutors filed power abuse charges against Akhalaia, claiming that he beat up several inmates when Akhalaia served as prison system chief in March, 2006, which led to a riot in the Tbilisi prison No.5 that claimed the life of seven inmates.
On March 2 prosecutor’s office filed charges against Akhalaia related to torture, inhuman treatment and abuse of power into the case of alleged mistreatment of seven special task force servicemen in August, 2012 when Akhalaia served as interior minister. Prosecutors claim that seven servicemen were subjected to inhuman treatment as “a punishment” for sympathizing Georgian Dream coalition, which at the time was in opposition.