Former deputy interior minister Shota Khizanishvili, who is now vice-mayor of Tbilisi, and ten Interior Ministry officials, including head of powerful Department of Constitutional Security, Levan Kardava, were arrested in connection to the case that involves illegal surveillance through unauthorized access to computer networks, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office said on November 16.
Total of twelve men were arrested on November 15 – former deputy interior minister Khizanishvili and eleven Interior Ministry officials. All but one of them may face charges in connection to alleged illegal surveillance and also in connection to related case of illegal confinement; one arrested interior ministry official’s charges may involve the case of alleged deliberate damage of equipment imported by PM Bidzina Ivanishvili-affiliated Cartu Group. Both of these two episodes are from the pre-election period.
The first episode, according to the prosecutor’s office, involves illegal surveillance through malware software, which enables to gain unauthorized access to private computer systems, taking control of embedded webcams and microphones on computers to take screenshots and to eavesdrop on targets.
“With the use of this malware software, DCS leadership was carrying out unsanctioned eavesdropping through unauthorized access to computers belonging to representatives of various political parties and religious organizations,” Archil Kbilashvili, the Georgian chief prosecutor, said at a news conference on November 16.
Among the targets at various times, according to chief prosecutor, were former defense minister Irakli Okruashivli, ex-parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze and computer systems in Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition headquarters. He declined to specify targets of alleged illegal surveillance through malware software among “religious organizations.”
“Numerous recordings of conversations have been obtained illegally by DCS through such practice,” Kbilashvili said.
Such practice of surveillance became interlinked to the case of illegal confinement of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s former bodyguard, Beso Surmava, ahead of the October 1 parliamentary elections, the prosecutor’s office has claimed.
The case involves alleged abduction of Ivanishvili’s bodyguard, who disappeared few days before elections and reappeared with a video message saying that he was making public covertly recorded audio files of some of the Georgian Dream senior figures, intended to show them in a bad light.
Chief prosecutor, Archil Kbilashvili, said that on September 26, 2012 then deputy interior minister Shota Khizanishvili instructed deputy head of operative-technical department of the Interior Ministry, Beka Kvaratskhelia, to collect such Georgian Dream-related covertly made recordings that would have “caused public mistrust towards the coalition leadership.” The chief prosecutor said that in the evening of the same day, Kvaratskhelia handed over CD with audio files to Khizanishvili “in the vicinity of the presidential administration” in Avlabari district of Tbilisi and after that Khizanishvili “entered into the presidential palace.”
Next morning, on September 27, Khizanishvili, the chief prosecutor said, instructed Kvaratskhelia to upload audio files on a YouTube account, which as if belonged to Ivanishvili’s security guard Beso Surmava.
The chief prosecutor said that DCS coerced Surmava to cooperate through blackmailing him by using “illegally obtained video recording about Surmava’s private life.” Fearing that the video recording would have become public, Surmava agreed to make a video message in which he was saying that audio recordings of Georgian Dream leaders were made by him upon Ivanishvili’s instructions. According to prosecutor’s office, Surmava was paid EUR 150,000 – money, which, Kbilashvili said, was seized as evidence in separate, unrelated criminal investigation by DCS. After that, according to the prosecutor’s office, Surmava was transferred to Adjara where he was held in confinement and released only after the elections.
A separate episode for which one of the arrested Interior Ministry officials will face charges is related to cases of alleged deliberate damaging of equipment imported by Bidzina Ivanishvili-affiliated Cartu Group. After Ivanishvili announced about going into politics in October, 2011, the Cartu Group often complained that various equipments imported by its member companies were “deliberately damaged” by the authorities during the customs clearance procedures.
Among the arrested Interior Ministry officials is head of one of the divisions at the Department of Constitutional Security (DCS), Giorgi Kavlashvili. Prosecutor’s office said it had been found out from Kavlashvili’s testimony that customs service was instructed to provide information to DCS about all the equipment imported by Cartu Group and upon receiving such information DCS officers were “damaging” equipment in customs terminals.
Chief prosecutor, Archil Kbilashvili, said that obtained information about all these alleged wrongdoings were based on testimonies given “without any pressure by absolute majority of detained persons.”
Kbilashvili also said that investigation was ongoing to find out if other officials were also involved in these alleged wrongdoings.
He said that the prosecutor’s office would formally file charges against all twelve arrested persons and then file a motion to the court requesting pretrial detention for some of the arrested officials and release on bail in case of some others.
Former deputy interior minister and vice-mayor of Tbilisi, Shota Khizanishvili, may face charges related to exceeding official power, in particular first part of article 333 of the criminal code, which carries a financial penalty or prison term for up to three years as a punishment.
Khizanishvili was chief of Interior Ministry’s administration when the ministry was led by Vano Merabishvili, former PM and now secretary General of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party. Khizanishvili was then promoted to the post of deputy interior minister after Bacho Akhalaia replaced Merabishvili on the post of interior minister in early July, 2012. After the October 1 parliamentary elections Khizanishvili was appointed as deputy to Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, who is President Saakashvili’s close ally.
Head of DCS, Levan Kardava, may faces charges related to exceeding official power and illegal confinement. Kardava was promoted on this post after Bacho Akhalaia became the Interior Minister in July, 2012.
Akhalaia is now under pretrial detention pending investigation into criminal charges involving torture, illegal confinement and exceeding of official powers. Charges against Kardava are not related to the case for which Akhalaia has been arrested.