July 8, 2014 / 5:56 PM / 5 years ago

Georgian court refuses to release ex-mayor before vote

TBILISI (Reuters) - A Georgian court refused to free a former mayor of the capital Tbilisi from pre-trial detention on Tuesday in a case which the opposition says is politically motivated.

The court rejected an appeal by Gigi Ugulava, a leader of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), against a ruling three days earlier that he must stay in detention for up to nine months until he is tried on charges including money laundering.

Ugulava headed the UNM’s campaign in elections where the ruling Georgian Dream coalition won a majority of seats on local councils in a first round of voting in June 15. The councils had been the UNM’s last remaining bastion.

But mayoral candidates from Georgian Dream must still face runoff votes on Saturday in the eight biggest cities, including Tbilisi, where no candidate crossed the 50 percent mark.

Mayors have considerable influence in the former Soviet republic of 4.5 million, especially in the capital. A sweep of the local elections would tighten Georgian Dream’s grip on power in the South Caucasus country, which is on the route of pipelines which carry Caspian oil and gas to world markets.

Dozens of ex-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 two years ago.

Ugulava, who was elected mayor in 2010, was suspended last December after he was charged with misspending public funds. He had been the only high-ranking official from the former leadership still in power. UNM leaders said his arrest was politically motivated.

“They will fail to silence the United National Movement,” said Giga Bokeria, one of the UNM leaders, adding that such pressure was an obstacle on Georgia’s path to membership of the European Union.

Western countries have aired concerns that the government has used selective justice and political persecution against opponents in Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

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

“The detention of Ugulava is a celebration of justice ... No one in Georgia is above the law and no one will be,” Prime Minister Garibashvili said last week.

Editing by Timothy Heritage/Ruth Pitchford

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