TBILISI, DFWatch–The Georgian president on Friday pardoned five former defense ministry officials who were convicted of embezzlement in a politically charged case.
The release of the five from prison Friday evening concludes one of the most significant court cases in Georgia in recent years. When the five were first detained, in 2014, it caused a scandal that led to then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania’s firing and the Free Democrats leaving the ruling coalition.
Political secretary to President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Pikria Chikhradze, said the president’s decision was made after close monitoring of the trial.
“The Prosecutor General’s Office was unable to assert the charges they faced. This was followed by different critical evaluations both in Georgia and in the international community. Therefore, the president has decided to pardon them,” Chikhradze said.
The president had been urged to pardon the five for many months and Margvelashvili’s decision on Friday has had a mixed effect, as a day earlier, Tbilisi Court of Appeal confirmed the fraud charges against the former MoD officials and yet, although the court upheld their guilt in misuse of power, it reduced their seven-year prison terms to one year and six months, which would expire next month.
One former head of the Defense Ministry’s Acquisitions Department Gizo Ghlonti, and four acting officials Nugzar Kaishauri, Giorgi Lobzhanidze, Archil Alavidze and Davit Tsipuria were detained for misspending of the state money in October 2014. The Prosecutor General’s Office accused them of preferential treatment of the communication company Silknet in a competition the ministry announced for building a high speed fiber-optic network.
According to investigators, the potential criminal offenses took place in 2013, when the employees learnt that Silknet was planning to build a high-speed fiber-optic cable and attempted to ‘embezzle state money in favor of the company.’ They therefore announced a secret procurement competition for building the fiber-optic highway and purchase the necessary equipment and asked nine companies to offer their price for such services, but they were only given a few days to send their price list, which only four companies were able to do.
The accused were freed on a bail in June, 2015, but arrested again in May, 2016 after a ruling by Tbilisi City Court, which sentenced them to a seven year prison term. The judgment lead to protests by people within the opposition and civil society groups, who slammed the ruling as “unfair, illegal and unjustified.”
The case caused the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to break apart, as then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania was sacked from his post and soon his party the Free Democrats, withdrew from the coalition.
After Alasania was dismissed, two of his allies in the government resigned: former Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, who is the sister of Alasania’s wife, and Irakli Petriashvili, former Minister for Euro and Euro Atlantic Integration.