TBILISI Georgian police seized satellite dishes on Thursday from a company suspected of giving them away to win votes for opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili's coalition, increasing tension before a parliamentary election.
The police seized the receivers from Global Contact Consulting, owned by the billionaire businessman's brother, and a bribery investigation was launched.
Gifts to voters could be seen as a violation of the law as Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition challenges President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party.
"The handing out of satellite dish antennas to voters on the condition of supporting a political entity has been continuing," the chief prosecutor's office said in a statement.
"The action may contain signs of a crime involving vote-buying, which can be punished either by a fine or up to three years in jail."
After the announcement, police arrived at a warehouse where the company stores its receivers.
Ivanishvili, who funded the building of homes, a school and a hospital for local residents in his home region outside Tbilisi before the election campaign began, made no comment. Georgian Dream was consulting lawyers.
Ivanishvili, a 56-year-old entrepreneur whose fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion by Forbes magazine, has reshaped the political landscape in the Caucasus state of 4.5 million by uniting the usually fractious opposition in his coalition.
He is taking on a leader who became the West's darling when he rose to power after the bloodless "rose revolution" that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 but who has been accused by some voters of failing to do enough to reform the economy.
Critics also accuse Saakashvili of curbing freedoms and leading Georgia into a disastrous war with Russia which it lost in August 2008. Moscow went on to recognize the rebel Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
Stability in the region is vital for Western governments as Georgia is an important transit route for gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe that would reduce reliance on Russian supplies.
Georgian Dream, which has attracted large crowds to election rallies, says its work has been repeatedly impeded by the authorities even though it trails the ruling United National Movement by about 20 percentage points in opinion polls.
The state audit agency ruled earlier this month that the free distribution of satellite dishes with a loan from Ivanishvili violated party funding rules, and he was fined 63.1 million lari ($37 million).
In a separate case, Ivanishvili was fined 11.2 million lari, making a total penalty of 74.3 million lari. Ivanishvili has refused to pay the fines.
Saakashvili has denounced him as a Kremlin stooge after making his fortune doing business in Russia, but the tycoon has responded by vowing to sell all his holdings in Russia.
Ivanishvili is barred from running for office himself after the government stripped him of his Georgian citizenship because he also held French and Russian citizenship.
He has since given up his Russian passport and said he would renounce his ties to France after obtaining a Georgian passport - moves that could allow him to run under legislation expected to be passed by parliament allowing European Union citizens who spend at least five years in Georgia to seek election.
(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Robin Pomeroy)