Georgia detains Saakashvili-era officials before trial

TBILISI Sat Nov 17, 2012 10:34am EST

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Ten former Georgian state officials were ordered on Saturday to stay in custody pending their trial for abuse of power in a case the opposition has described as a politically motivated persecution by the new government.

The 10 are all senior Interior Ministry officials and their detention followed the arrest of a former interior minister, the army's chief-of-staff, and another army commander.

Detentions of former officials since billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili led an opposition coalition to election victory over President Mikheil Saakashvili's long-ruling party has raised opposition fears of a witchhunt in the ex-Soviet state and drawn criticism from NATO and Europe as well as warnings from the United States.

Ivanishvili, who became the prime minister after the election, vowed to pursue former officials suspected of wrongdoing, but promised to abide the rule of law.

"We offered the court to set a bail and free them before trial, but unfortunately none of our arguments had been taken into account," Kakha Shonia, one of the defendants' lawyers, told reporters after the court hearing.

"The court ordered all 10 of them to be detained for two months before trial."

Last week prosecutors charged Bacho Akhalaia, a former interior and defense minister, Georgy Kalandadze, the army's chief-of-staff, and another army commander with abuse of power. Akhalaia was also charged with illegal confinement and held in custody, while army officers were freed on bail.

The 10 Interior Ministry officials are charged with abuse of power, illegal confinement and illegally obtaining personal information.

The head of NATO, which Georgia hopes to join, has expressed concern about the arrests and European officials whom Ivanishvili met this week on a trip to Brussels criticized the cases launched against his political opponents.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, visiting Georgia, said on Friday investigations and prosecution against former officials should be free from any signs of political persecution and "selective justice".

(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Alison Williams)

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