By Sarah Marcus
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
TBILISI, Georgia, March 23 -- The Georgian government arrested nine members of a leading opposition party on gun charges Monday as tensions mounted ahead of widely anticipated protests next month demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Nino Burjanadze, leader of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia party and a former ally of Saakashvili, said the charges were fabricated and part of a "campaign of terror" by the U.S.-backed government to discredit its critics.
But an Interior Ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, said the arrests were the result of a routine undercover investigation into illegal arms dealing. He denied that police had targeted the opposition and said investigators were unaware of the political views of the suspects before they were detained.
"These arrests have no political connotations at all. All we are doing is trying to prevent violence," Utiashvili said, adding that the government decided to make a statement only after the case had become "extremely politicized" by the opposition. Ten people were arrested, he said, including one who was not a party member.
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi declined to comment.
The arrests, some of which took place at the offices of Burjanadze's party, come just over two weeks before Georgia's main opposition parties plan mass demonstrations calling on Saakashvili to resign.
The opposition has accused Saakashvili of monopolizing power and betraying the democratic ideals of the Rose Revolution, the 2003 street protests that swept him into office. A favorite of the Bush administration, the U.S.-educated lawyer has come under increased pressure since Georgia's defeat in a war with Russia in August over two breakaway territories.
In remarks that opposition leaders say were an attempt to smear them ahead of the protests, Saakashvili said this month that "lots of money has become available in Georgian politics, from some sources, and not for good deeds."
Burjanadze, a prominent leader of the Rose Revolution and former speaker of Parliament who broke with Saakashvili early last year, accused the government of spreading false rumors that Russia was financing the opposition. She urged calm in response to the arrests but vowed to press ahead with the protest and other peaceful efforts to hold early elections.
"They decided to destroy this particular party just two weeks before April 9 because they understand that lots of people will come to the protests on that date," she said at a news conference flanked by leaders of other opposition parties, who issued a joint statement condemning the arrests.
Among those backing Burjanadze at the news conference was Irakli Alasania, the former U.N. ambassador who quit Saakashvili's government in December and has emerged as a leading figure in the opposition. He has been gathering signatures seeking a constitutional plebiscite on whether the president should resign.
The Interior Ministry played about 20 minutes of video for reporters that purportedly shows the individuals arrested buying and selling automatic rifles. It is not clear from the footage how the suspects planned to use the guns, and Burjanadze said the film should be examined for possible falsification.
Utiashvili, the spokesman, said there had been three grenade attacks on police property in recent weeks, including one near Burjanadze's party headquarters after a pro-opposition concert.
Giorgi Chkheidze, Georgia's deputy human rights ombudsman, said he visited the detainees but was denied entry for 30 minutes without explanation. When he was allowed in, one of the accused told him he had been beaten during the arrest, Chkheidze said.
In an interview, Burjanadze also said her husband, Badri Bitsadze, had received a call from an Interior Ministry official warning him that he would be arrested if he did not leave Georgia for a month. She did not name the official.
Bitsadze resigned as head of the Georgian border police in October, alleging that a campaign was underway to discredit the border police with corruption charges because of his wife's political views.
Burjanadze said her husband, who now leads a nongovernmental organization working on migration issues, would not leave the country and was ready to answer any accusations against him in court.