Pre-trial detention of two local officials from provincial municipalities, who are the members of UNM opposition party, “triggers questions” as the move will prevent them from campaigning ahead of the local elections, several rights groups and election watchdog organizations said on February 14.
Head (gamgebeli) of the Khoni municipality in Imereti region, Zurab Jibukhaia, and his deputy, Besarion Tchelidze, were arrested on February 10 and charged with misspending, exceeding official authority and fraud, allegedly committed almost four years ago. Prosecutors claim that in July, 2010 the two officials handed over confiscated illegally cut timber to sawmills instead of distributing it among socially vulnerable residents of the municipality, resulting in damage to the state property worth of GEL 12,580 (about USD 7,200). On February 12 the City Court in Kutaisi ruled in favor of prosecution’s motion and ordered pre-trial detention for the two officials.
On February 11 the law enforcement agencies arrested deputy chairman of local council (Sakrebulo) in Dusheti, Zurab Otiashvili, also UNM member. He was charged with exceeding powers, fraud and receiving a gift illegally, allegedly committed in August, 2009 when Otiashvili served as gamgebeli of Dusheti municipality.
UNM opposition party condemned detention of its members as politically motivated and part of a campaign against the major opposition force ahead of the local elections. UNM said that gamgebeli of Khoni municipality, Zurab Jibukhaia, was its potential candidate for gamgebeli post in local elections this year, when heads of all municipalities across the country will be directly elected for the first time. It said that Jibukhaia was going to participate in UNM’s internal elections through which the party plans to select its candidates for the local elections, expected to be held in June. The UNM leaders raised their concerns with a group of Tbilisi-based foreign diplomats during a meeting in the party headquarters in Tbilisi on February 14.
In a joint statement on February 14, seven rights and election watchdog groups said that although the prosecution failed to justify need for pre-trial detention of two municipal officials, the court in Kutaisi accepted the prosecution’s motion.
The statement, joined among others by Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, Transparency International Georgia and International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, notes that Khoni is among those only remaining three municipalities in the country whose gamgebelis are UNM members; others have either resigned or switched sides since the change of government after the October, 2012 parliamentary elections.
The statement also says that requesting pre-trial detention by the prosecution in this case was not in the spirit of previously declared intention of the prosecutor’s office to seek measure of restraint other than detention against those suspected of white-collar crimes.
“Everyone is equal before the law and, if proven guilty, everyone should be held responsible regardless of party affiliation. But at the same time it should also be taken into consideration that detention of active members of an opposition party for crimes committed several years ago and requesting pre-trial detention by the law enforcement agencies triggers additional question marks,” reads the statement.
“We believe, that ahead of the elections the law enforcement agencies should maximally refrain from detention of opposition party members, if of course it is not a case of urgency. Such actions may cause questions about fairness of the electoral environment,” it reads.
A senior lawmaker from the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative Party, denied allegations about politically motivated detention of several local officials.
“It has nothing to do with politics,” MP Dzidziguri said and added that deputy head of Kvareli municipality in Kakheti region, who is a member of his Conservative Party, was also arrested few days ago. The official in question was detained on February 12 on bribe-taking charges.
“Regardless of party affiliation if a crime was committed it should be punished and it should be up to the court to decide,” MP Dzidziguri said.