Georgia under Bidzina Ivanishvili: Justice or revenge?

Police register former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili for questioning in Tbilisi, 1 December Vano Merabishvili was taken in for questioning over passports he used

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A wave of arrests of high-profile opposition politicians is tearing Georgia's new parliament apart. Those on the receiving end say this is a witch hunt.

Giorgi looks nervous as he remembers his experiences in prison. "The physical abuse wasn't the worst thing," he says. "It was constantly being humiliated that was the most difficult to deal with."

A pale thin man, in his late 20s, Giorgi did not want to give his surname out of fear of reprisals.

He was in Gldani Prison No 8 for two years for a drugs offence. Several times a week guards beat him, he says, and he was subjected to verbal abuse on a daily basis.

Now that the country has a new government, he is one of many Georgians who want those responsible for alleged crimes to face justice.

The brutal treatment of prisoners has become a symbol for the perceived failures of Georgia's previous leaders: they started out nine years ago as idealistic pro-Western reformers, intent on clamping down on post-Soviet organised crime. Many have ended up accused of all kinds of abuses of power.

Thousands of cases have been taken to the state prosecutors, with officials connected to the ousted administration accused of corruption, illegal wire-tapping, torture or physical abuse.

More than 20 people have now been arrested - many of them high-ranking officials, including former cabinet ministers, Tbilisi's deputy mayor and the army's chief of staff.

'Political interests'

Over the weekend ex-Prime Minster Vano Merabishvili was questioned by police for allegedly using a forged passport.

And Georgia's new Prime Minster, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said that President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose party was ousted in October's parliamentary elections and who is supposed to remain in office until next year, could also face charges.

Mr Saakashvili says his party is being victimised.

Some of his supporters have compared the sudden late-night arrests to Stalin's purges. Many members of the former government are growing increasingly nervous.

Georgian Prime Minster Bidzina Ivanishvili talking to reporters in Tbilisi, 22 November Bidzina Ivanishvili won a shock victory in the parliamentary election

"Obvious abuses of power should be investigated but the way they are doing it looks arbitrary," says political analyst Ghia Nodia.

"The general impression given by who they are arresting and how they behave is that they are following their political interests."

It looks like a politically motivated campaign to destroy an opposition seen as a threat, believes Mr Nodia.

"They are scared of the powers of the president, who constitutionally is able to fire the new prime minister," he said.

October's elections brought Georgia widespread praise for ensuring a peaceful and democratic handover of power - a rare event in this corner of the former Soviet Union.

But now Western observers are expressing concern.

Last week, during a visit to Tbilisi, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said there must be "no retribution against political rivals". And Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he is "extremely concerned" about the arrests of "political opponents".

Some commentators in the European and American press have been more forthright: last week an editorial in the Washington Post said Mr Ivanishvili should not be made welcome in the US while opposition leaders were behind bars.

Simplistic analysis?

But the more alarmist comments in the Western media have been seen in Tbilisi as simplistic and one-sided: the result of a good-guys-versus-bad-guys Hollywood narrative of Georgian politics, say some, which portrays Mikheil Saakashvili's team as pro-Western freedom fighters struggling to break free of Moscow's influence.

In reality, some members of President Saakashvili's government have been dogged by allegations of abuses of power for years - cases, which according to rights activists, were insufficiently investigated during almost a decade of unopposed rule.

Start Quote

We need to show people that nobody who is innocent will go to jail and that anybody who has committed a crime will be investigated”

End Quote Maia Panjikidze Georgian foreign minister

Suspicious deaths of detainees in police custody were allegedly covered up and there are accusations that the fight against crime tipped over into heavy-handed and inhumane behaviour.

The final straw for many voters came just weeks before October's elections, when graphic videos emerged, apparently showing the brutal abuse of prisoners by jail guards.

This new government won the elections partly because of the scandal, after promising to bring an end to such alleged abuses. And it denies accusations that the arrests are politically motivated, saying it is about restoring rule of law.

"One of the main failures in Georgia was there was no sense of justice," Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told the BBC.

"This is what people here are concerned about. We need to show people that nobody who is innocent will go to jail and that anybody who has committed a crime will be investigated."

Rather than undermining Georgia's Nato and EU aspirations, Ms Panjikidze argues the arrests do quite the opposite.

"One of the main principles of the EU and Nato is the establishment of democratic values, particularly justice and the protection of human rights," she says.

"If we can learn from the mistakes of the past and guarantee [these values] in the future, that's the best way to integrate with European and Euro-Atlantic structures."

The challenge for Georgia now is how to satisfy calls for justice while at the same time avoiding political revenge.

October's election turned out more peaceful than expected - but as the rift between the new government and the opposition grows, governing is proving more of a challenge.

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