TBILISI (Reuters) - The Georgian government detained the army’s chief-of-staff on Wednesday on suspicion of abuse of power, stepping up what the opposition says is a political witch hunt against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies.
New Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s coalition ousted Saakashvili’s party in an election last month, saying it would pursue former officials it suspected of wrongdoing.
It began on Tuesday by detaining Bacho Akhalaia, a former interior and defense minister. General Georgy Kalandadze, the army’s chief-of-staff and another army commander were brought in for questioning early on Wednesday.
With Saakashvili’s nine-year dominance of the political landscape over the opposition says it fears a witch hunt is underway in the former Soviet republic, a focus of tension between Russia and the West and a transit country for Caspian Sea oil and gas exports to Europe.
“Recent events are a source of indignation for me as today we need supremacy of the law as never before,” Saakashvili said in a televised statement. He was reacting to news of the detentions and news of an unplanned inspection of the public broadcaster by financial police.
Saakashvili urged the government and its MPs to respect state institutions, including the armed forces and the media, and to work with him in a civilized way.
“We may not agree with each other, but we should not confront our own country,” Saakashvili said, saying recent events would not help Georgia’s efforts to join NATO ahead of a ministerial meeting of the military alliance in December.
Akhalaia, who quit as interior minister over a prison abuse scandal shortly before the election, was being detained at the prosecutor general’s office after being questioned for three hours, his lawyer said.
“The reason for his detention was that during his work as a defense minister he allegedly insulted several officers in the presence of others,” David Dekanoidze, a lawyer, told reporters.
“I’ve never ever heard such an absurd reason for detention,” Dekanoidze said.
Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili said Kalandadze and Zurab Shamatava, commander of the army’s Fourth Brigade, faced similar accusations. State investigators had evidence that Akhalaia, Kalandadze and Shamatava had insulted six servicemen in October 2011, he said.
None of the detainees have been charged but could face up to eight years in jail if found guilty of abuse of power.
“THE ACTION OF COWARDS”
Akhalaia left Georgia after the election but returned this week, saying he was ready to answer any questions from law enforcement agencies.
“Akhalaia’s detention is the act of cowards,” said Akaky Minashvili, a member of parliament from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).
The opposition says it fears retribution after the closely fought election and believes Ivanishvili hopes to pile pressure on his rival Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili said last week the government was considering cutting funding for the presidential administration next year.
“It’s nothing but political persecution,” Nugzar Tsiklauri, a member of parliament from the UNM, said of the detentions.
The opposition has temporarily suspended its participation in a parliamentary session on Wednesday in a protest against a financial inspection of the public broadcaster.
Saakashvili, the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept away Georgia’s post-Soviet old guard, must step down next year.
Reforms due to take effect after a presidential vote in 2013 will weaken the presidency while strengthening parliament and the premiership.
Akhalaia, 32, was appointed as Georgia’s defense minister in 2009, one year after a five-day war with Russia, and served in that post for three years.
Before that, he served as the head of Georgia’s penitentiary system, where he led a struggle against the “thieves in law” who ruled prisons in the former Soviet republic.
Human rights groups accused him of carrying out a heavy-handed crackdown on Georgia’s largest prison riot in 2006, in which seven inmates were killed, and blamed him for the ill treatment of prisoners and military servicemen.
Reports of prisoner abuse led to protests in the country of 4.5 million just before the election. Akhalaia was one of several former high-ranking officials, including the defense and justice ministers, who left the country after the election.
Editing by Andrew Osborn