Court in Kutaisi ruled on Wednesday night in favor of the prosecution’s motion and ordered pretrial detention for ex-PM and UNM secretary general Vano Merabishvili.
The same court, however, declined the prosecutors’ motion for pretrial detention for ex-healthcare minister and governor of Kakheti region Zurab Tchiaberashvili, who was arrested together with Merabishvili after interrogation on May 21, and ordered his release on GEL 20,000 bail. Tchiaberashvili will be released after posting the bail within next 30 days.
A preliminary hearing on the merits of the criminal case against Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili will be held on July 15, announced Kutaisi City Court judge, Davit Akhalbedashvili, 32, who became the judge year and a half ago.
Merabishvili has been charged into two separate cases – one involving allegations of funneling over GEL 5.2 million public funds to UNM’s election campaign in 2012 when he was the Prime Minister.
Tchiaberashvili, who was healthcare minister in 2012, has also been charged into this case with abuse of office, bribing of voters and misspending of public funds.
In addition Merabishvili faces abuse of power and misspending/embezzlement charges into a separate case, involving allegations that he misappropriated “luxurious villa” from its private owner through “intimidation” and used GEL 158,000 of Interior Ministry’s funds to refurbish it in 2009, when he served as the interior minister.
Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili deny charges as “absurd” and part of politically-motivated persecutions of political opponents.
Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were escorted into the courtroom, packed by their supporters and UNM lawmakers, late on Wednesday afternoon handcuffed to police officers; looking relaxed, Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were chatting with each other and smiling before the start of the hearing.
Meanwhile outside the court two parallel rallies were ongoing during the entire court proceeding.
Divided by police cordons, there were group of people on the one side calling for sending Merabishvili to pretrial detention and on the other side there were UNM and Merabishvili supporters; although at times situation seemed tense as these two opposing groups of demonstrators were exchanging verbal insults, no major incident was reported.
News about court’s decision in favor of Merabishvili’s pretrial custody triggered jubilant cheers and applause from one part of demonstrators outside the court.
The opposing part of demonstrators was receiving thanks and encouragements from UNM senior lawmakers, who were telling supporters that the struggle would continue, including by appealing the Kutaisi City Court decision to higher court.
“Our struggle will continue both on legal and political front… Nothing is over and everything will be OK. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger; we are not dead and we won’t be dead,” UNM parliamentary minority leader, Davit Bakradze, told supporters outside the court.
Prosecutors requested the court to apply pretrial detention as a measure of restraint against both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili pending trial.
The prosecution argued during the hearing that the two were occupying, and in case of Tchiaberashvili still occupies, high-ranking posts and wield influence over their current or former subordinates, which potentially could be used for impeding the investigation.
Investigation into the case involving alleged misspending of public funds for campaign purposes was launched several months ago and both Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili were first interrogated over this case in February, 2013; they were arrested after their second interrogation in Kutaisi prosecutor’s office on May 21.
Prosecutors also told the judge that putting the two in custody was needed to prevent them to flee the country. To back up its argument the prosecution told the court that Merabishvili’s wife left the country on May 21; the former PM, however, told the judge that his wife was on her way back to Georgia.
Lawyers of Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili argued that there was no reason to believe that the two would impede the investigation if released and both appeared before investigators upon summoning. They were asking the judge to release the two men on personal recognizance offered by a group of UNM lawmakers.
The lawyers also argued the two men were arrested with procedural violations. They claimed that Tchiaberashvili and Merabishvili were arrested on the ground of “urgent necessity”, but no sufficient and valid explanation was provided what this “urgent necessity” was. In case of Tchiaberashvili, his lawyer also argued that ex-healthcare minister, who served as Georgia’s ambassador to the Council of Europe and then to Switzerland, had the diplomatic rank and for that reason only the Justice Minister was authorized to arrest him.
After attending the court hearing, UNM senior lawmakers gathered in the Parliament in Kutaisi to make a statement for the press and said that “political repression” against the party would only make it stronger.
“This is an important day… as our political life moves to new stage… Those who think that what happened today should be a source of joy… will see in several months that unfortunately this day was in fact making the launch of irreversible and serious changes for Georgia’s political life,” UNM parliamentary minority leader, Davit Bakradze, said.
“I want to tell those, who think that jailing of former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili is not good for Georgia, and those people, who understand where the line between political freedom and political repression is, that our struggle continues and if anyone has an illusion that the United National Movement will be destroyed by arresting its individual leaders… sorry, but this illusion will remain illusion and the National Movement will continue its political struggle. More pressure and more repression against the opposition force will only further strengthen the opposition.”
UNM lawmakers also said that the rally outside the court, which they claimed was orchestrated by the government, was designed to mount pressure on the judiciary and particularly on the judge who was presiding over pretrial hearing.