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Georgian justice minister seeking to reassure US on prosecution of former government officials

06.03.2013

 DESMOND BUTLER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON - Georgia's justice minister is seeking to reassure U.S. officials that recent arrests of former government officials are not politically motivated.

Tea Tsulukiani is meeting U.S. officials in Washington this week amid concern by the Obama administration that the new government of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is using the justice system to settle political scores. Ivanishvili led a coalition that defeated the party of President Mikahail Saakashvili in parliamentary elections in October. U.S. officials fear that political infighting could set back the path toward western integration for a country that has been a bright spot of emerging democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

In an interview Wednesday, Tsulukiani said that her ministry had received several thousand complaints about members of Saakashvili's party, including allegations of torture, wrongful seizure of property and corruption by senior officials. But she said that the she believed that the majority of the complaints were legitimate. As evidence of the government's caution, she noted that it had only opened about 30 prosecutions so far.

"We have been gathering evidence," she said. "Judges will decide if these people are guilty or not."

The swiftness of government prosecutions following the elections, including a former interior minister and an army chief of staff, has prompted concern in the United States and Europe. Ivanishvili campaigned on a pledge to prosecute Saakashivili allies and is under pressure from constituents to follow through. Ivanishvili has been grappling over constitutional reforms with Saakashvili in an uncomfortable power sharing arrangement. Saakashvili's term ends in October.

Senior officials in the Obama administration and the European Union have publically warned the government that political prosecutions could harm Georgian aspirations for western integration.

"Many unfortunate and bad stories have been told," Tsulukiani said. "That's why I am here: to give accurate information."

She says that her government is planning to introduce an amnesty law that would exempt former members of the government from prosecutions, except in violent crimes. She plans to outline for U.S. officials judicial reforms she is implementing that she says will give more power to judges and to lawyers in criminal defence.

Until last year, Tsulukiani served as a senior lawyer with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, focusing on Georgia. She said that some of the complaints she saw prompted her to return.

"If we don't have a fair court system in Georgia, if we don't protect human rights in Georgia, we cannot say validly that we are moving forward towards NATO and the EU," she said.

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