Deputy Defense Minister, Alexi Batiashvili, appeared before prosecutors on November 3 for questioning as a “witness” in a case related to alleged sham tender in which one former and four serving officials from the Defense Ministry and general staff of the armed forces were arrested late last month.
Prosecution claims that GEL 4.1 million was misspent in the tender, which involved a contract with one of the country’s largest telecom operators Silknet on laying fiber optic cable. Arrested officials from MoD’s procurement department and general staff’s communications and IT unit, who are now in a pre-trial detention, deny charges and Defense Minister Irakli Alasania says that he is confident in their innocence.
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Prosecutor’s office said that Batiashvili has been summoned for questioning as contract with Silknet was signed by him in December.
“Alexi Batiashvili is a close relative of Silknet’s financial director, therefore there are some questions, which will be asked to him [Batiashvili],” said Jarji Tsiklauri, who acts as a prosecutor in this case.
Although contract with Silknet was signed in December, the tender itself, which was classified as secret, was announced in late August and bids submitted by several companies were opened and the Silknet was chosen as a winner in early September.
At the time Batiashvili was not yet deputy defense minister – the post on which he was appointed in late November.
At the time of announcement of the tender Batiashvili served as deputy interior minister; now PM Irakli Garibashvili held the interior minister’s post at the time.
Silknet said in a statement that all of its employees involved in the tender process “acted in line with all the legal requirements and all general tender procedures.
“Among the four companies involved in the tender, Silknet offered the most reliable, affordable and quality service combined in a budget which was 2.4 million GEL less than that of the runner-up company. This was the sole reason why Silknet was declared winner in the tender,” the company said.
“Should the case be declassified a number of additional details will emerge that will prove without a doubt that the Silknet offer was the superior both in terms of price and service offered. We are eager for all these facts to be available to the public. This is in the interest of the media, of the ministry of defense, of our company and of the Georgian people,” Silknet said.
The prosecution’s case is classified as secrete and the Ministry of Defense is now seeking its declassification. According to MoD, the Interior Ministry declined to declassify the case citing the need to review case file, which should be handed over by the prosecutor’s office. MoD said last week that it was planning to formally request prosecutor’s office to give the case file to the Interior Ministry on November 3.
In comments made on Monday morning, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania expressed hope that parts of the case would be declassified “within hours.”
He also said that he met with families of the arrested MoD and general staff officials to reiterate his support.
“I looked into the case and I want to stress once again that I am absolutely, completely confident in innocence of our guys,” Alasania said.
He said that he would present materials to the Prime Minister, which “confirm that these people are innocent.”
Prosecutor’s office said in a tough-worded statement on November 3 that suggestions as if it is the prosecutor’s office, which keeps the case classified, “is a lie, which aims at misleading the public and at discrediting” of the prosecutor’s office. It said that the case has been classified because the tender itself was classified as secret by MoD. It also said that the prosecutor’s office is ready to hand over case files to the competent agency of the Interior Ministry and in case of approval it would then be up to the Ministry of Defense itself to declassify the documents.
These arrests have stirred speculation in Georgia that the move might be part of infighting within the Georgian Dream ruling coalition targeting Defense Minister Alasania.
Justice Minister, Tea Tsulukiani, who, like Alasania, is from the Free Democrats party, a member of the GD ruling coalition, suggested on November 3 that timing of the arrests, which were made when Alasania was away for foreign trip, was disrespectful to the Defense Minister.
“Every investigator, every prosecutor should understand that when the minister is away [on a foreign trip] and if there is no urgency, they should wait for the return of the minister, because what has happened it violated unwritten rule which entails respect of the minister. All the ministers respect [law enforcement] agencies and they require the same respect from them,” Tsulukiani said.
Parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, also pointed at this issue when commenting on the case in an interview with the Georgian Public Broadcaster on November 1. He said that prosecutors should show “more responsible” approach and announcing about the arrest of MoD officials while the Defense Minister was holding “very important” talks in Paris and Berlin was “not fully correct action.”
“I don’t mean that someone should dictate to a prosecutor what to do and when, but a prosecutor, who fights against corruption, should know that in this process of fighting against corruption he should not damage other important things,” Usupashvili said, adding that he does “not want to believe” that the timing of the arrests were deliberately chosen to coincide with the Defense Minister’s foreign trips.
At the time of the arrests, chief of general staff of the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Vakhtang Kapanadze, was also away for an official visit to Estonia.