Opposition leader and former Mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava has been found guilty of embezzling ₾48 million ($17 million) and sentenced to three years and two months in prison.
Georgia’s Supreme Court announced the decision on Monday without a court hearing, overturning a previous ruling by the appeals court.
Ugulava attended a police station soon after along with supporters and other opposition politicians. ‘Our fight continues until we get rid of this black plague. We must destroy this system’, he said. He was arrested shortly after.
Ugulava is the secretary-general of European Georgia, the largest opposition party currently in parliament. The party was founded in January 2017 by members of the United National Movement unhappy at the leadership of former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
The charges concerned the period when Ugulava served as Tbilisi Mayor, between 2005–2013. The Prosecutor’s Office claimed Ugulava and 5 of his then–employees embezzled ₾48 million in 2012 from the Tbilisi Development Fund, a municipal body established in 2010 to preserve Tbilisi’s cultural heritage.
Four out of five of the employees charged were also found guilty by the Supreme Court on Monday.
Ugulava was previously charged with embezzlement over the same case in 2013, however the charges were later changed to abuse of power and he served 1 year and 3 months in prison and was released in 2017.
In 2018, he was again charged with embezzlement and the charges were again changed to abuse of power, which he was convicted for. The Court of Appeals ruled he had already served time for this.
Mondays Supreme Court ruling overturned the appeals court decision, convicting him of the original charge of embezzlement.
Ugulava’s lawyer had demanded one of the three Supreme Court judges, Shalva Tadumadze, be recused as he was the Prosecutor General when the Prosecutor’s Office appealed his sentence to the Court of Appeals.
After announcing the ruling, Ugulava told journalists that the judges had simply executed a ruling made by the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili. He said that Ivanishvili had sentenced him through Tadumadze for a term he had already served.
‘This is an unjust, politically motivated ruling by Ivanishvili himself, executed by judges who didn’t even have time to read through the court files’, said Ugulava.
‘Using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy’
Anger over the ruling from within Georgia and abroad was swift, with many labelling the decision as being politically motivated.
Several Georgian opposition parties announced they would halt negotiations with Georgian Dream over electoral reforms in response. Opposition groups have been demanding the ruling party deliver a fully-proportional system before October’s parliamentary poll, something the party promised in June.
[Read more: Georgian opposition parties boycott parliament]
Tamar Kordzaia, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, said the ruling was a ‘diktat’, while other opposition leaders, such as the Labour Party’s Shalva Natelashvili, said that the ruling would be met with demonstrations.
Jim Risch, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Monday evening that he was ‘disappointed Georgia has chosen to increase its politically motivated abuse of opposition politicians’.
I'm disappointed Georgia has chosen to increase its politically motivated abuse of opposition politicians. As I told the Georgian foreign minister last week, the collapse of judicial independence & persecution of the opposition is unacceptable behavior. https://t.co/jiY8cvdqXL
— U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SenateForeign) February 11, 2020
US Congressman Adam Kinzinger was harsher in his criticism, tweeting that ‘using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy’.
Gigi Ugulava, leader of European Georgia, was arrested today and sentenced to 38 months in prison for an old crime he’s already served time over. To say this is disturbing would be an understatement. Using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy.
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) February 10, 2020
Georgian Dream party officials denied that his arrest was connected to upcoming parliamentary elections in October.
‘How is it being an election year relevant? If a person commits a crime, they must be held responsible as demanded by the law’, Tbilisi Mayor and General Secretary of Georgian Dream Kakha Kaladze said.