File photo from July, 2012 shows then healthcare minister Zurab Tchiaberashvili (left) and then PM Vano Merabishvili (right) during a visit to one of Tbilisi’s medical centers.
Former PM Vano Merabishvili, who is now UNM secretary general, and ex-healthcare minister Zurab Tchiaberashvili, who is now governor of Kakheti region, were arrested on May 21.
The two men were arrested after being interrogated by prosecutors in Kutaisi in connection to investigation into alleged misspending of GEL 5.2 million public funds on UNM activists during election campaign last year.
Prosecutor’s office said that Merabishvili was also facing charges in connection to a separate case, which allegedly involves misappropriation of private property and embezzlement of GEL 158,000 in 2009, when he served as interior minister.
The prosecutor’s office said in a statement on May 21, that the first case was related to the program of registration of unemployed citizens, which was announced in July 2012 by the previous government, led by then PM Vano Merabishvili. At the time the previous government announced about the program to register unemployed citizens with a purpose to create detailed data base of unemployed persons to then help them with training and employment. Social Service Agency at the Ministry of Healthcare and Social Affairs was in charge of compiling data base. At the time the previous government also announced about hiring registrants, or as they were called “employment agents”, to carry out registration of unemployed citizens.
Prosecutor’s office says that up to 22,000 “employment agents” were hired and each paid with about GEL 240 with total funding of over GEL 5.2 million coming from the state budget. Prosecutor’s office claims that the entire program in fact aimed at channeling public funds to UNM’s election campaign as “employment agents” were engaged in UNM’s campaigning, instead of compiling unemployed citizens’ data base.
Another case over which Merabishvili will face criminal charges involves misappropriation of private property, as well as embezzlement of public funds in 2009, the prosecutor’s office said.
Prosecutor’s office accuses Merabishvili of seizing a villa from its legitimate owner through intimidation in seaside resort of Kvariati in Adjara in May 2009, when he served as interior minister.
“For almost four years Merabishvili and his family used this villa without making any payments [to owner]. He abused power and refurbished the villa… with Interior Ministry’s funds… which resulted into GEL 158,000 financial damage to the state,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Prosecutor’s office said that in connection to both of these cases, charges against Merabishvili would involve bribing of voters; misspending/embezzlement and abuse of power.
If convicted for these charges, Merabishvili will face from seven to 12 years in jail, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutor’s office said that it would seek pretrial detention pending trial for both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili.
Lawyers of both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili said that their clients were denying charges.
Prosecutor’s office also said that Merabishvili was likely to face charges in connection to high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani in 2006 and dispersal of opposition’s rally in Tbilisi in May, 2011. It said that investigation into these two cases “are actually completed.”
Prosecutor’s office said that dispersal of anti-government rally on May 26, 2011 and “deliberate use of excessive force” by the police forces was done under “direct orders and supervision” of Merabishvili, who at the time was interior minister. It said that disproportionate use of police force during dispersal of the rally led “to death of two people”.
On Girgvliani murder case, the prosecutor’s office said that Merabishvili, who at the time was interior minister, “together with other officials”, fabricated investigation with a purpose of covering up links of his wife Tako Salakaia and other of his associates to this crime.
President Saakashvili’s UNM party condemned arrest of Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili as political persecution.
Zurab Tchiaberashvili told journalists earlier on May 21 before appearing for questioning before prosecutors in Kutaisi, that the government was failing to address problems in the country and wanted to deflect public attention from real problems to “staged shows”. He also said that investigation into employment program case was “absurd.”
“The decision which was made by Bidzina Ivanishvili to arrest his direct political opponent, Vano Merabishvili as well as to arrest Zurab Tchiaberashvili is a politically-motivated decision. This decision has nothing to do with justice,” UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili said.
PM Bidzina Ivanishvili said on May 21 that arguments in favor of allegations about politically-motivated prosecutions were “weak.”
“Both Europe and American have understood well that we do not pursue selective justice; there will be no political persecution. I can repeat again that we will not allow any political persecution,” PM Ivanishvili told journalists.
“I think that we should wait for the trial. Questions did exist towards the previous authorities, including Merabishvili. I have said about it for multiple times and I can repeat it again. But we should not claim anything in advance before the trial. Let’s wait for the process,” he said.