Georgia: Ex-minister Bacho Akhalaia arrested

Georgia's former Interior and Defence Minister Bacho Akhalaia arriving at a prosecutor's office 6/11/2012 Mr Akhalaia protested his innocence as he arrived at the prosecutor's office

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Police in Georgia have arrested a former senior member of the government that was voted out of power in October.

Bacho Akhalaia, the former interior and defence minister, and a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, is being investigated for abuse of power.

Two others were also held, including the military chief of staff.

Mr Akhalaia denied the allegations. Members of his party said the arrests were the start of a witch-hunt by the newly elected government.

Mr Akhalaia is accused of physically and verbally abusing six soldiers when he was defence minister in October 2011, said Georgia's Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili.

The military chief of staff, Georgy Kalandadze, and another senior army officer, Zurab Shamatava, have also been arrested.

They have not yet been charged but face up to eight years in jail if convicted, the chief prosecutor said.

'Absurd detention'

Mr Akhalaia's critics have long accused him of a heavy-handed approach to fighting crime, says the BBC's Damien McGuinness in Tbilisi.

He was forced to resign over a prison abuse scandal which erupted shortly before the election in October.

That scandal was widely considered to have contributed to the government's defeat, and victory for the billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now prime minister, and is a bitter rival to President Saakashvili.

The new government has vowed to hold its predecessors responsible for their alleged authoritarianism.

Mr Akhalaia's lawyer, David Dekanoidze, said: "I've never ever heard such an absurd reason for detention... that during his work as a defence minister he allegedly insulted several officers in the presence of others."

"It's nothing but political persecution," said Nugzar Tsiklauri, a member of parliament from Mr Saakashvili's opposition party.

But Prime Minister Ivanishvili said: "This arrest was not political."

He added: "I will do my utmost to ensure that the law, not some political party or force, reigns supreme in this country."

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