Monday, 12 October 2015

Former Tbilisi mayor pledges to continue fight against Ivanishvili from jail

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By Eka Janashia

October 12th, the CACI Analyst

On September 18, one day after his release from jail, Tbilisi’s city court returned Gigi Ugulava – the leader of opposition United National Movement (UNM) party and former Tbilisi mayor – to prison. The court found Ugulava guilty of misspending public funds and sentenced him to four years and six months in prison. The original sentence implied a nine-year term, but the act of amnesty, adopted by the Georgian parliament in 2012, halved his time in jail.

Judge Lasha Chkhartishvili accepted the Prosecutor Office’s (PO) accusations about Ugulava’s misuse of power during his tenure as Tbilisi mayor, including the fictitious employment of hundreds of UNM activists and financing the party’s political activities from city budget prior to the 2012 parliamentary elections.

The first wave of charges against Ugulava appeared in 2013 while he was Tbilisi mayor. He was accused of embezzling a large amount of public funds, money laundering and misspending GEL 48.18 million of the city’s budget in 2011-2012. Then, the court turned down the PO’s motion to place Ugulava in pre-trial detention though it ruled in favor of a request to end his term in office. In May 2014, the Constitutional Court (CC) found Ugulava’s suspension from office unconstitutional.

Shortly thereafter, in July 2014, another set of criminal charges were brought against him. The PO blamed Ugulava – then the head of UNM’s campaign for local elections, for supervising a money laundering scheme to finance the party’s election campaign. Based on these claims, the court ordered Ugulava’s pre-trial detention. In additional indictments concerning the November 2007 anti-government protests and the “seizure” of Imedi TV station owned by tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, the PO accused the former mayor of exceeding official authority.

Despite the numerous accusations, Ugulava was not found guilty by the court. According to the Georgian constitution, the term of pre-trial detention for an accused person should not exceed nine months. However, one of the clauses in the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), adopted in 2010, permits detention for more than 9 months, in case a new set of charges are filed against him. Thus, in March 2015, as the time of Ugulava’s release neared, the PO re-qualified one of the criminal charges against him to keep the former mayor in custody.

Ugulava’s lawyers were quick to file a lawsuit in the CC, focusing the collision between Georgia’s Constitution and the CPC. On September 16, the CC ruled that keeping an accused person in pre-trial detention beyond 9 months is unconstitutional. Its verdict was signed by eight out of nine CC members, yet Merab Turava, one of the CC judges, avoided taking part in the process. He initially said he was ill and then argued that he needed more time to familiarize himself with the lawsuit. Turava’s move was assessed by opposition parties and civil groups as an attempt to delay Ugulava’s release.

Legal experts claimed that Ugulava should have been freed immediately after the CC ruling though he was released only a day, later allegedly due to necessary formal procedures. When he exited the courtroom, he was surrounded by supporters applauding his eventual release. Ugulava asserted that he was Ivanishvili’s “personal prisoner” and if Ivanishvili gave him such an “opportunity” again, meaning returning Ugulava to prison, the oligarch would have to pay a “political price.”

On the next day, September 18, Ugulava was again detained after the Tbilisi city court found him guilty of misspending public funds, though it acquitted him of money laundering charges in a separate case.

In a reaction to Ugulava’s second arrest, the Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Elmar Brok stated that “the situation in Georgia sends an alarming signal.”

Joseph Daul, the president of the Parliament’s largest and most influential party cluster, the European People’s Party, said that “Ivanishvili’s group must understand that the justice system is not a playground without rules. Blackmailing judges, cherry picking laws to incarcerate the opposition and abusing power are not characteristic of a Georgia that Europe wants as a partner.”

In light of these statements, Ugulava’s case could serve as a good excuse for rejecting Georgia’s further integration with the Euro-Atlantic space. Before the ratification of the Association Agreement, Brussels warned Georgia multiple times against using the justice system for pursuing political retribution. Although the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition claims that the judiciary is free from political pressure, the political flavor of Ugulava’s case suggests otherwise and negatively affects the already waning popularity of GD, especially among voters who remember infrastructure and social projects carried out during Ugulava’s tenure as the mayor of Tbilisi.

UNM, in turn, will do its best to highlight the case during its election campaign. As Ugulava put it: “Elections are coming … Their [GD’s] defeat is inevitable. Our [UNM] victory and the victory of all the pro-European forces is inevitable.” 

Ugulava’s lawyers have started a collection of signatures requesting that the former mayor is pardoned. After 50,000 signatures are gathered, the petition will be sent to President Giorgi Margvelashvili.

Whether or not Ugulava is pardoned, his imprisonment could actually increase his political clout ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 2016, while Ivanishvili and his coalition faces plummeting voter support.

Image attribution: accessed on Oct 12, 2015

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