Deputy Defense Minister, Alexi Batiashvili, spent almost ten hours in the prosecutor’s office on November 3 where he was questioned 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.
Batiashvili himself did not speak with reporters after the questioning, which ended just before midnight on November 3, but his lawyer told reporters that the interrogation process was carried out with “violations.”
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Lawyer, Levan Samushia, who also acts as a defense lawyer for one of the arrested MoD procurements officials, said that investigator wanted to get “desired” answers from Batiashvili and interrogation protocol presented to his client after the questioning did not reflect witness’ actual statements. After complaining about what the lawyer called inaccurate protocol, investigator presented a revised version of the witness statement, but it was still failing to reflect properly Batiashvili’s answers. Therefore, the lawyer said, his client refused to attest protocol’s accuracy and to sign it.
Prosecutor’s office denied defense layer’s claims about violations and said in a statement on November 4 that the questioning was carried out “in full compliance” of procedures set by the law.
“As it turned out the latter [Batiashvili] had no answers on asked questions and after the interrogation the witness showed incomprehensible attitude and refused to sign interrogation protocol compiled based on his own testimony,” the prosecutor’s office said, adding that the witness and his lawyer were offered to make a note to the protocol, describing their complaint, and the questioning was then completed as the 8-hour time limit for interrogation was expiring.
Prosecutor’s office said that complains of Batiashvili’s lawyer about “violations” during the interrogation are “incomprehensible”. It also said that Batiashvili and his lawyer resorted to this “tactic” of claiming violations because the witness “was not ready to answer investigator’s questions.
Prosecutor’s office said that it is ready to re-interrogate Batiashvili and to provide video and audio recording of the questioning in order to avoid “speculation” over the process.
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 said that he is confident in their innocence.
Prosecutor’s office cited two reasons why Deputy Defense Minister Batiashvili was summoned for questioning: the contract with Silknet was signed by him, and prosecutors also noted that he is a “close relative” to Silknet’s financial director.
Although contract with Silknet was signed in December, 2013 the tender itself, which was classified as secret, was announced by MoD in late August and bids submitted by several companies were opened and the Silknet was chosen as a winner in 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.”
The prosecution’s case is classified as secrete as the tender itself was classified by the MoD when it was announced last year. MoD is now seeking its declassification. According to MoD, the Interior Ministry declined to declassify the case citing the need to review case files, 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. Prosecutor’s office said in a statement on November 3 that any suggestion 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 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.
Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania, reiterated once again on November 3 that he’s “absolutely, completely confident in innocence” of the arrested MoD and general staff officials.
Later on November 3 Alasania and lawmakers from his Free Democrats party, which is part of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, met PM Irakli Garibashvili to discuss the case, which is fraught with possible serious rift within the ruling coalition.
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. The arrest evoked parallels with the case when several officials from the Agriculture Ministry were arrested in 2013 on charges of misspending of public funds through mishandled tender; then minister of agriculture Davit Kirvalidze resigned after those arrests. But nine months later, in February 2014 misspending charges in this highly controversial case were dropped from the agriculture ministry officials.
In an interview with Imedi TV on October 31, PM Irakli Garibashvili avoided giving direct answer on a question whether he would seek political responsibility of the Defense Minister over this case, but said that he “too has questions” over how the tender was handled.