Mayor in Tbilisi suspended, opposition cry foul

TBILISI Sun Dec 22, 2013 6:27am EST

Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, accompanied by his supporters, leaves the City Court in Tbilisi, December 21, 2013. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, accompanied by his supporters, leaves the City Court in Tbilisi, December 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

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TBILISI (Reuters) - The mayor of Georgia's capital Tbilisi has been suspended from office after he was charged with misspending public funds in a case he and his opposition colleagues said was a witch-hunt against supporters of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tbilisi city court made the ruling against Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), late on Saturday after earlier allowing him free on bail of 50,000 lari ($29,000) before his trial.

Dozens of former officials including a former prime minister have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power and corruption since Georgia's new government took office after Saakashvili's party was defeated in an election a year ago.

Before his suspension, Ugulava was the only high-ranking official from the former leadership still in power. Mayors, controlling large budgets and local power, have considerable influence in Georgia, especially in the capital.

Western countries have aired concerns that the government has used selective justice and political persecution against political opponents in the ex-Soviet republic, a pivot for geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia.

The authorities deny that prosecution of former officials is political and promise a fair trial.

"It has been confirmed once again that legal proceedings against me are purely of political nature," Ugulava, who was elected as mayor in 2010, wrote on his Facebook page after he was informed about the court's decision by telephone.

He said the charges against him and attempts to push him out of office were part of the government's pressure on the opposition, especially ahead of next year's municipal election in which he planned to seek re-election.

His opposition colleagues also said the move was a part of the political pressure from the government.

"The ruling shows that the leadership of the Tbilisi city court is under the government's control ... It is a part of government's all-out attack on the opposition," said Georgy Vashadze, an opposition parliamentarian.

The charges against Ugulava concern allegations that he was behind a scheme through which 48 million lari of municipal funds were funneled to cover UNM party's various expenses in 2011-2012.

Ugulava is already standing trial on similar, but unrelated, charges that were filed against him in February.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Alison Williams)

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