Four years after he was acquitted in the Court of Appeals, the Georgian Supreme Court has found former Georgian Defence Minister Davit Kezerashvili guilty of misappropriating state funds.
On 7 September, Georgia’s Supreme Court sentenced Davit Kezerashvili, the former Defence Minister (2006-2008) and owner of TV channel Formula, to 10 years in prison.
The Court found Kezerashvili guilty of embezzling €5,060,000 under the auspices of a combat training project organised by the Defence Ministry. He has also been found guilty of abuse of power.
Soon after the verdict, the Prosecutor’s Office announced that they were continuing their investigation into the case and looking for possible additional culprits.
The sentence was announced in absentia as Kezerashvili has been out of the country for several years. According to the amnesty law that the Georgian Dream government adopted in 2012, Kezerashvili would serve only five years in prison.
Kezerashvili was an ally of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili before he came to power in 2003, and has been mostly out of the public eye since retiring from politics in 2008.
Giorgi Gelkhauri, Kezerashvili’s lawyer, has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The ruling against Davit Kezerashvili was made by three judges, including Shalva Tadumadze, who, prior to 2019, served as Georgia’s Prosecutor General.
Tadumadze’s former position has raised questions about his possible recusal from the case, given that he had previously overseen a prosecutorial body that sought Kezerashvili’s conviction.
The ruling was made 25 days before the municipal elections were due to be held in Georgia, where the ruling Georgian Dream party has focused much of their campaign on criticising and highlighting the alleged wrongdoings of the former ruling United National Movement party (UNM) — currently the largest opposition party — under which Kezerashvili served.
Kezerashvili’s Formula began broadcasting alongside another pro-opposition leaning TV Channel Mtavari, in October 2019.
Georgian authorities have painted the two channels, alongside the often government-critical TV channel Pirveli as allied with ex-president and UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili, and even, on occasion, boycotted them.
Since 2019, Georgian Dream has been harshly criticised for failing to implement reforms advocated by Georgia’s Western partners to increase the independence of the judiciary.
‘The people of Georgia deserve an impartial, independent judiciary that is not used for political purposes’, the US Embassy in Georgia reminded the ruling party on 7 September.
Kezerashvili has condemned the 7 September verdict as ‘shameful’.
He alleged that Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who he derisively called ‘Ivanishvili’s henchman’ in reference to the founder of Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili, was personally behind the overturning of his earlier acquittal. According to Kezerashvili, the ruling is an attempt to 'intimidate or blackmail' him and the Formula TV channel.
Kezerashvili became one of the first former officials that the Georgian Dream government went after following the change of power in 2012. He has faced prosecution over several separate criminal cases, all pertaining to corruption and abuse of power, since then.
French authorities detained Kezerashvili in 2013 at the request of Georgian authorities, however, the Aix-en-Provence city court refused to extradite him and released him in early 2014.
The United Kingdom, where Kezerashvili had been residing in recent years, also refused to extradite him in 2016.
‘Robbery and theft’
Critics of Mikheil Saakashvili and the UNM government have, for years, portrayed Davit Kezerashvili as a cautionary tale of high-level corruption.
On one occasion, this even included current UNM Chair Nika Melia who in 2017 accused Kezerashvili of acquiring money through ‘robbery and theft’.
In their 2011 report, watchdog group Transparency International — Georgia (TI) wrote that Kezerashvili was ‘widely believed to have taken control over large parts of the Georgian advertising sector’ with the help of his brother-in-law Dimitri Chikovani.
According to TI, until 2012, the companies connected with the former Defence Minister, according to TI, also ‘held exclusive licenses for outdoor advertising in Tbilisi and national lottery’ and were also an integral part of Georgia’s ‘oligopolistic fuel market’.
Soon after UNM lost power in 2012, Davit Kezerashvili quickly acquired and resold 40% of shares of Rustavi 2, a TV company whose original founders had claimed for years it was illegally taken away from them by the government, to Saakashvili-linked entrepreneur Giorgi Karamanishvili.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV transferred to previous owner after ECHR ruling]
Davit Kezerashvili’s lawyers have denied all allegations of corruption and have insisted that his financial success had nothing to do with his tenure as a government official.
In 2016, following the Panama Papers leaks, Swiss outlet Tribune De Geneve reported that Davit Kezerashvili’s trustees registered three offshore shell companies ten days after he resigned in 2008 and that he moved millions of dollars onto those accounts.
The Switzerland-based news outlet also reported that one of Kezerashvili’s trustees tried to forge financial documents in Panama right after the Georgian ex-Minister came under investigation.