By Eka Janashia (08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Investigation Service of Georgia’s Ministry of Finance detained Gigi Ugulava, a former mayor of Tbilisi and election campaign chief of the opposition party United National Movement (UNM), at Tbilisi’s airport before boarding a flight to Kiev, on July 3. Ugulava’s arrest sparked apprehension ahead of the decisive second round of the local elections held on July 12.
On July 2, the Tbilisi City Court turned down the prosecution’s motion to prevent Ugulava from traveling to Ukraine by depriving him of his passport and ID card. Since Ugulava has traveled abroad several times and returned back to Georgia for the last two years, the court found it inadvisable to ban his trip. However, the Investigation Service justified the arrest with the “urgent need” to interrogate Ugulava.
Two days earlier, the Investigation Service revealed new criminal charges against Ugulava related to the misspending of public funds and abuse of authority during his term as mayor. In 2009 and 2011, Ugulava allegedly granted preferential treatment to the car parking company CT Park in the distribution of revenues garnered through fines that incurred misspending of around US$ 614,000 in budgetary funds.
After the arrest, Ugulava was incriminated with additional accusations of money laundering and hooliganism taking place at the Marneuli District Election Commission in early June.
Ugulava has purportedly received “black” money amounting to US$ 760,000 from an offshore registered company affiliated with the former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili to fund UNM’s election campaign. In relation to the Marneuli incident, Ugulava was charged under articles 150 and 226 of the criminal code dealing with “coercion” and “organizing actions by a group which violate public order.”
Aside from the most recent indictments, Ugulava has already faced multiple criminal charges since February 2013. The allegations involve misspending and embezzlement of large amounts of public funds (around US$ 28.2 million) in 2011-2012. Although the court suspended Ugulava from the Tbilisi mayor’s office in 2013, it declined the prosecution’s motion for Ugulava’s pre-trial detention and freed him on bail. It was only on July 4, 2014 that the Tbilisi City Court eventually ruled in favor of the prosecution’s request and ordered pre-trial custody for Ugulava.
The court’s decision boosted the protests of UNM supporters rallying outside the court building. The dissent rapidly turned into a clash between police and activists. Several people were detained, including UNM lawmaker Levan Bezhashvili and former ambassador to Italy Kote Gabashvili for the administrative offense of petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders.
Ugulava’s defense lawyer appealed the decision at the Court of Appeals but the judge Giorgi Mirotadze considered the petition as irrelevant. UNM insisted that by this decision, Mirotadze, who became a judge in November 2013, approved to become one of the government’s favorite judges emerging within the judiciary since Georgian Dream came into power. Former PM David Bakradze said the UNM intends to submit Ugulava’s case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, as well as the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they are deeply concerned with Ugulava’s arrest and will follow the case closely. Their concerns were particularly raised due to the cancelation of a moratorium declared by PM Irakli Garibashvili on April 14, when Garibashvili called on the law enforcement agencies to refrain from detentions or other sorts of legal restrictions against political figures involved in the election campaign.
The head of the EU Delegation to Georgia, Ambassador Philip Dimitrov, warned that signing the Association Agreement does not mean that “everything else, including the liberalization of the visa regime, should be considered to be guaranteed.” More overtly, the Vice President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Jacek Saryusz-Wolski appraised Ugulava’s arrest as “unfortunate development” and blamed Georgian authorities for “political retribution” conducted against Georgia’s main opposition and EPP member-party.
Conversely, PM Garibashvili assessed the court’s decision as a “celebration of justice” and welcomed the reinforced independence of the judiciary. In response, Ugulava wrote on his Facebook account that “prison and exile do not stop political processes.” At the court hearing he denied all charges against him as politically motivated and expressed his determination to continue the fight against the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvi’s regime.
Ugulava’s detention prior to the second round of the local polls not only discredited the moratorium policy, but also triggered expectations about a new wave of politically inspired prosecutions labeled a “restoration of justice.” Maintaining this sort of policy might seriously damage Georgia’s EU-integration course.