Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said that he’s confident in “full innocence” of arrested officials of MoD and general staff of the armed forces, who have been charged with misspending public funds through alleged sham tender.
Alasania, who made first public comments on the case since the arrests were made on October 28, said that all the procurements in MoD are done in “full compliance” with the law.
Speaking to journalists at dawn on Saturday upon arrival back to Tbilisi from his trip to France and Germany, Alasania also expressed regret that the case is still classified as secret, adding that there was no longer a need to keep the investigation secret because the case has already “damaged” country’s security.
Tbilisi City Court accepted on October 30 a motion from prosecutors and ordered pre-trial detention of one former and four serving officials from the Ministry of Defense and general staff. The court hearing was held beyond the closed doors as the case has been classified as secret. The tender in question, which involved a contract on laying fiber optic cable, was classified as secret. Arrested officials from MoD’s procurement department and general staff’s communications and IT unit deny charges.
In an interview with Imedi TV late on Friday, PM Irakli Garibashvili avoided giving direct answer on a question whether he would seek political responsibility of the Defense Minister, but said that he “too has questions” over how the tender was handled. He also said that prosecutor’s office will be “maximally open and transparent” in its investigation and the MoD and Minister Alasania “should also be motivated to answer any question.”
Defense Minister Alasania told journalists: "All the questions should be answered – that’s the main thing which we and the society should be now focused on. It of course requires transparent investigation."
“I am confident that my brothers-in-arms and my colleagues are completely innocent, because, naturally, I was monitoring procurements and I know that everything was being done in full compliance with the law,” the Defense Minister said.
“But as far as someone has questions, they should be answered and the entire Ministry of Defense is committed to cooperate with the investigation in order to bring full truth to the public,” he said.
“I am now focused on looking into the matter and studying of all the details. It is important for me that our guys to feel themselves protected from the legal point of view. I will focus all my attention on them in order not to make them feel that they are oppressed – regrettably there already are elements of this in a way how [court] process was conducted behind the closed doors,” Alasania said.
“It is very important to declassify this case because from the security point of view a huge blow has already been struck to country with these [arrests]. So keeping those issues secret, which previously was necessary, makes no sense now. So in order to establish the full truth it is important to carry out investigation openly,” he said.
Alasania also said that “high-level political consultations” are needed over this case because it has “damaged our country’s security.” Alasania said that he plans discussions over this issue with PM Irakli Garibashvili, President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili, as well as with relevant parliamentary committees.
“Of course we will call things by their right name when everything is over and responsibility of those persons will be raised who have misled the society,” Alasania said.
Asked if the case has political motives, Alasania responded: “Nothing and no one should obstruct the investigation. Whether there are political motives or not, we will talk about it later.”
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.
Commenting on this case of arrested MoD official, U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, said on October 30: “We have full confidence in Minister Alasania.”
“I know that there have been a number of questions raised about this investigation,” the U.S. diplomat told journalists on October 30. “First of all I want to say that the United States continues to have full confidence in Georgia as a military partner and a defense partner with United States, bilaterally and with NATO.”
“I want to say that we have full confidence in Minister Alasania and the leadership team at the Ministry of Defense, and we commend the way in which they have responded to this investigation by saying that they will cooperate fully with the investigation. Any time there are accusations of corruption this needs to be investigated thoroughly and we welcome such an investigation. As always, we ask and urge the government to approach such investigations in accordance to the highest standards of due process and rule of law,” Ambassador Norland said.
Parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, said on October 29 that this is a significant case which he would personally follow very closely and added that whether charges are substantiated or not, either way this case has already “damaged” the armed forces.
“This case of high-ranking MoD officials is in no way just another ordinary case. The case concerns defense and specifically one of the most sensitive and important areas – that is communications. As you remember during the August, 2008 war that was one of the areas which unfortunately failed and the armed forces had to rely on mobile phones. So clarifying this issue is extremely important,” Usupashvili said.
“If it is confirmed that charges filed against these persons are true, it perhaps should also results of serious political responsibility of everyone involved. But if confirmed that these charges are groundless and not true, the issue of serious political responsibility should be raised of those people, who have initiated such case, because as of today the country’s defense capabilities, the armed forces and the defense sector, have been damaged seriously either by committing of this crime or by filing groundless criminal charges,” the parliament speaker said.
“We should follow this case very closely. I, as the parliament speaker, consider it as my personal case and the Parliament will follow this case in line with the law in order to avoid reoccurrence of such case,” Usupashvili said.