TBILISI, May 21 (RIA Novosti) – Former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, who is considered a key ally of embattled President Mikheil Saakashvili, has been detained on corruption charges, prosecutors said Tuesday.
“Vano Merabishvili has been detained. He is facing up to 12 years in prison for his actions,” a spokesman for the district prosecutor’s office in West Georgia said. “Prosecutors have sent a request to the court to order his arrest.”
Prosecutors accuse Merabishvili, who leads Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), of giving fictitious jobs to hundreds of UNM activists who were involved in the party's parliamentary election campaign in 2012, and misappropriation of a luxurious private villa through intimidation of the owner.
He may soon face additional charges over his alleged involvement in the violent police crackdown on a protest in Tbilisi in 2011 and the murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani in 2006, prosecutors said.
Another Saakashvili’s close ally, former Labor, Health and Social Security Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, was detained on Tuesday on abuse of office charges.
The two arrests are seen by experts as another step in a power struggle between pro-Russian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and pro-Western President Saakashvili.
After becoming prime minister as a result of the Georgian Dream coalition victory in parliamentary elections last year, Ivanishvili claimed that Saakashvili and his party had ruined the country since coming to power nine years ago.
A number of Saakashvili’s political allies, including Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, are currently under investigation on corruption and abuse of office charges.
Saakashili on Tuesday denounced the arrest of Merabishvili and warned that it will tarnish the Georgian image in the West, while Ivanishvili rejected claims of political motivation behind the detention.