Georgia detains three former state officials for bribery

TBILISI Wed Dec 19, 2012 3:48pm EST

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian prosecutors detained three former senior officials and the head of a power company on Wednesday, widening an investigation which the opposition says is a political witch-hunt by the new government.

More than 20 ex-officials have been arrested and some charged with abuse of power since a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now prime minister, ousted the party of President Mikheil Saakashvili in an October 1 election.

With Saakashvili's nine-year dominance of Georgian politics over, his allies say they fear a politically-motivated campaign against former officials is being orchestrated by Ivanishvili's new administration.

The group detained on Wednesday included former Justice and Education Minister and acting head of the independent Rustavi-2 TV channel Nika Gvaramia, former Energy and Finance Minister Alexander Khetaguri and former Deputy Economy Minister Kakha Damenia.

"All of them are suspected of forging documents and large-scale bribery," Natia Sukhiashvili, the finance ministry investigation department spokeswoman, told reporters.

Devi Kandelaki, the acting head of Tbilisi's electricity distribution company Telasi, controlled by Russia's InterRao, was also detained in the swoop.

Sukhiashvili said the detainees were suspected of handling a $1 million bribe for overlooking a financial check on Telasi and three other companies which Telasi planned to merge into one holding.

InterRAO's representative in Moscow, Anton Nazarov, told Reuters the $1 million was paid legitimately to consulting firms which were to check the companies in order for InterRao to prepare a tax agreement with Georgian government.

InterRao has been in talks with Georgia about lowering electricity tariffs in return for eased taxes.

Saakashvili demanded an immediate release of detainees and said charges against the head of an independent TV station were "very suspicious and false".

"I demand an immediate release of the head of an independent TV station and an end to this lawlessness," Saakashvili said.

POLITICAL PERSECUTION

Reforms weakening the president and strengthening parliament are to take effect after a presidential vote next year in which Saakashvili is barred from running.

But he is head of state for now and Europe and the United States, which eye any Russian influence in Georgia warily, have called for cooperation between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili during the period of cohabitation.

Instability in the ex-Soviet republic would be of concern to the West, which uses the Caucasus as a transit route for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and has a strategic location on the Black Sea between Russia and Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.

New Georgian officials deny the arrests are part of a settling of political scores in the country.

Supporters of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition demanded the president's resignation in a protest outside the former ruling party's local headquarters in Georgia's second city of Kutaisi, where Saakashvili was meeting with members of his National Movement party.

The activists physically assaulted some of the parliamentarians as they exited the building.

(Additional reporting by Anastasia Lyrchikova in Moscow; Editing by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Rosalind Russell)

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