BRUSSELS Georgia must respect the law in its arrests of former state officials in order to avoid any hint it is conducting a political witch hunt, NATO's top official said on Wednesday.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen raised his concerns with Georgian Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze, who had travelled to Brussels for meetings with the NATO leader and alliance foreign ministers.
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.
Rasmussen said it was "of utmost importance that the authorities in Georgia respect fully the fundamental principles of the rule of law and people who are arrested also are guaranteed due process".
"We have stressed that it's of utmost importance that these legal cases are not perceived as political persecution," he told a news conference.
Ivanishvili, whom Saakashvili accuses of being too close to Russia, has made clear that he shares Saakashvili's priority of closer cooperation with the European Union and NATO, with an eye to eventual membership of both.
Saakashvili and Ivanishvili must negotiate a tricky period of "co-habitation" until a presidential election next year.
Rasmussen said Georgia had passed a "very important test" by successfully holding the October 1 election. "We now look forward to seeing a smooth co-habitation between the new government and the president and we look forward to free, fair and transparent presidential elections next year," he said.
He said Panjikidze had told NATO ministers that Saakashvili and the new government had agreed on the appointment of a new defense chief, an announcement he said was welcomed by the allies as a sign that Georgian politicians were trying to work together.
Panjikidze told reporters she had assured Rasmussen that there would be no "selective justice" in Georgia and that the judicial process would be transparent.
Interior Minister Irakly Garibashvili has denied the recent arrests were part of a settling of political scores in the former Soviet republic, a transit state for Caspian oil exports to Europe.
Officials arrested since the election include Garibashvili's predecessor as interior minister, one of his deputies and two military commanders. The charges the officials face range from abuse of power to illegal confinement.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Michael Roddy)