Georgia: Saakashvili ally sentenced to 5 years

Associated Press
FILE In this Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 file photo former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili attends a United National Movement congress in Tbilisi, Georgia. A court in Georgia on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, has convicted the top ally of former President Mikhail Saakashvili of embezzlement and abuse of office and sentenced him to five years in prison. Vano Merabishvili served for nearly eight years as interior minister in charge of Georgia’s police force before becoming prime minister ahead of a parliamentary election in 2012. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov, File)
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FILE In this Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 file photo former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili attends …

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — A top ally of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was convicted Monday of embezzlement and abuse of office and sentenced to five years in prison.

Vano Merabishvili's lawyer accused the Kutaisi city court of ruling under pressure from the new Georgian government and said he would appeal.

The government formed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has denied claims that the charges filed against Merabishvili and other Saakashvili allies amounted to political revenge.

Merabishvili served for nearly eight years as interior minister in charge of Georgia's police force before becoming prime minister ahead of parliamentary elections in 2012. If Saakashvili's party had won the election, Merabishvili would have held onto his post as prime minister, which under a constitutional change was becoming the more powerful position in the former Soviet republic.

But after Saakashvili's party suffered a humiliating defeat and his rival became prime minister, prosecutors filed charges against many of his allies.

Saakashvili left the country shortly after his second term ended in November and has taken up a position at Tufts University in the United States.

Merabishvili, who heads Saakashvili's party, has been in custody since he was arrested in May 2013 and accused of putting nearly 22,000 party campaign workers on the Labor Ministry payroll. He was also charged with illegally appropriating a seaside residence and using government funds to maintain it.

The former labor minister, Zurab Chiaberashvili, who was then serving as governor of the Kakheti region, was arrested along with Merabishvili in the case involving his former ministry. He was also found guilty on Monday and fined 50,000 lari (about $29,000).

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