A hearing is underway in the Kutaisi City Court on Wednesday into a motion from the prosecution requesting pretrial detention for ex-PM and UNM secretary general Vano Merabishvili and former healthcare minister and now governor of Kakheti region Zurab Tchiaberashvili, who were arrested on May 21.
Merabishvili has been charged into two separate cases – one involving allegations of funneling over GEL 5.2 million public funds to UNM’s election campaign in 2012 when he was the Prime Minister.
Tchiaberashvili, who was healthcare minister in 2012, has also been charged into this case with abuse of office, bribing of voters and misspending of public funds.
In addition Merabishvili faces abuse of power and misspending/embezzlement charges into a separate case, involving allegations that he misappropriated “luxurious villa” from its private owner through “intimidation” and used GEL 158,000 of Interior Ministry’s funds to refurbish it in 2009, when he served as the interior minister.
Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili deny charges as “absurd” and part of politically-motivated persecutions of political opponents, according to their lawyers. Meanwhile in Tbilisi, a lawyer Gogita Gabaidze, acting on behalf of Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili, said that the two men were arrested with procedural violations. Gabaidze said that Tchiaberashvili and Merabishvili were arrested on the ground of “urgent necessity”, but no sufficient and valid explanation was provided what this “urgent necessity” was.
Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were escorted into the courtroom, packed by their supporters and UNM lawmakers, late on Wednesday afternoon handcuffed to police officers; looking relaxed, Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were chatting with each other and smiling before the start of the hearing.
Prosecutors requested the court to apply pretrial detention as a measure of restraint against both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili.
Reports say prosecutors argued during the ongoing hearing that the two were occupying, and in case of Tchiaberashvili still occupies, high-ranking posts and wield influence over their current or former subordinates, which potentially can be used for hampering the investigation. Investigation into the case involving alleged misspending of public funds for campaign purposes was launched several months ago and the two men were first interrogated over this case in February, 2013; they were arrested after their second interrogation on May 21.
Prosecutors also told the judge that putting the two in custody was needed to prevent them to flee the country. To back up its argument the prosecution told the court that Merabishvili’s wife left the country on May 21; the former PM, however, told the judge that his wife was on her way back into the country.
The hearing is still ongoing and the court has yet to decide on what kind of measure of restraint, if any, should be applied against Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili.
Meanwhile outside the court, a group of people is holding a rallying calling for Merabishvili’s imprisonment and chanting “justice, justice”; protesters booed UNM lawmakers and their supporters who arrived in the court to attend the pretrial hearing; the police are present at the scene not to allow a direct contact between the two groups. UNM lawmakers said that protesters outside the Kutaisi court “are those same aggressive and extremist” groups, which were involved in violence outside the national library in Tbilisi on February 8 and who are orchestrated by the government.
In a televised statement made from his residence in Tbilisi as the court hearing was underway on Wednesday evening, President Saakashvili said that the rally outside the Kutaisi court was “pressure on the court”.
He said that charges against Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili and its related court hearings were not about specific alleged criminal offenses, but “it’s in fact putting Georgia’s recent history on trial.”
“We are putting on trial our successful attempt that we have been undertaking since the Rose Revolution to create the modern state in Georgia, in the Caucasus,” Saakashvili said, adding that both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were among the architects of “successful implementation of this statehood idea.”