Georgian authorities have detained former prime minister Vano Merabishvili, one of the top allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili, and another senior ex-official on corruption charges, local prosecutors said Tuesday.
Prosecutors in the region of Georgia's second largest city Kutaisi said that Merabishvili and former health minister Zurab Chiaberashvili had been detained and presented with the charges.
Merabishvili, a tough former interior minister and premier, is the latest but most prominent ally of the increasingly embattled Saakashvili to face charges over alleged wrongdoing while in office.
"Ivane (Vano) Merabishvili is under arrest. The actions he is accused of carry a prison sentence from seven to 12 years," a representative of the Kutaisi prosecutor's office said in televised comments.
The representative, who was not named, said prosecutors would be seeking for both the men to be remanded in custody ahead of their trials.
The former prime minister is charged with fictitious employment of his United National Movement (UNM) party activists on the threshold of last October's parliamentary elections and misappropriation of a luxurious private villa through intimidation of owner.
Merabishvili served as interior minister from 2004 to 2012 and became one of the country's most influential politicians by spearheading Saakashvili's crackdown on corruption.
In June 2012, Saakashvili named Merabishvili, seen by many as his closest political ally, as prime minister ahead of the October parliamentary elections.
However the UNM lost the polls to the Georgia Dream coalition of businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who then became prime minister in a fractious cohabitation with Saakashvili.
A swathe of close Saakashvili allies have now been placed under investigation by the judicial authorities, including Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava who was charged with misspending state funds and money laundering.
The arrest of Merabishvili also recalls the detention and jailing of Ukraine's former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a controversial abuse of power case that was denounced as selective persecution by the West.
Senior UNM lawmaker and ex-culture minister Giorgi Gabashvili accused Ivanishvili of himself being behind the detentions.
"The decision by Ivanishvili to detain Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili is a purely political one but they will fail to destroy the United National Movement," he told Georgia's InterPress news agency.
"The current government has made a very bad mistake."
© 2013 AFP
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