Tough line on graft in Georgia

As this Caucasus nation continues its political transition after November's "rose revolution," a campaign against corruption is taking center stage.

But some observers are worried that the campaign has a dark side - that zeal for law and order has led to police abuses. Last week, Gia Jokhtaberidze, son-in-law of ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, was arrested on charges of tax evasion - the first member of Shevardnadze's family to be detained in the crackdown.

President Bush gave a boost Wednesday to new Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's anticorruption drive, praising his efforts after an Oval Office meeting between the two leaders.

The US has taken increasing interest in Georgia, which is part of a Caspian oil pipeline route that will help diversify petroleum sources away from the Persian Gulf. Georgia has also become an ally in the war on terrorism.

Last week, Georgia's parliament voted to set up a police force within the finance ministry to combat economic and financial crimes. Another new measure calls for firing and prosecuting any official seen taking bribes.

"I think that Saakashvili will be much more successful than any previous political leader in rooting out corruption," says Lana Ghvinjilia, of Transparency International Georgia. "First because he has the political will to do so. And second because he is absolutely not corrupted himself."

But Georgia is notorious for its corruption. Last year, Transparency International ranked the country near the bottom globally.

After the USSR collapsed and Georgia became independent, the old Soviet nomenklatura gained control of profitable state assets, says Dmitry Japaridze, national committee president of the International Chamber of Commerce. They eliminated obstacles for their businesses and underpaid or avoided taxes. This helped the shadow economy account for between 50 and 80 percent of national GDP, experts estimate.

Five high-ranking officials have been detained on charges including tax evasion, embezzlement, and misappropriation of state property. Besides Mr. Jokhtaberidze, they include former head of Georgia's Railway Department Akaki Chkhaidze, former Energy Minister Davit Mirtskhulava, and former Minister of Transport and Communications Merab Adeishvili.

Merab Zhordania admitted embezzling $352,000 from the state budget, according to Georgian officials. He was released from jail after pleading guilty to tax evasion and repaying the money.

Prosecutors have so far been unsuccessful in trying to recover money from Swiss bank accounts containing proceeds allegedly reaped illegally by Mr. Mirtskhulava and Levan Mamaladze, a former governor who is in hiding in Russia.

But it will take more than a few arrests to change a system built on cronyism and preferential treatment, observers say. "An economic policy must be developed aimed at maximum economic liberalization," says Japaridze. "Without simultaneous positive efforts in the economic sphere, the radical steps taken by the law-enforcement bodies will be doomed to collapse."

Some critics of the anticorruption drive say it is motivated by political revenge. "It's a political persecution of our family," Manana Shevardnadze, daughter of the ex-president, told journalists after the detainment of her husband, Jokhtaberidze, a former government minister and head of the leading mobile-phone firm Magticom.

Prosecutor-general Irakly Okruashvili says Magticom evaded paying $337,000 in taxes. But Mark Hauf, president of US Metromedia International Group, which has a 49 percent stake in Magticom, said at a Tbilisi press conference Jan. 26 that Magticom "has no debt to the state."

Other critics worry that authorities are overstepping bounds as they try to stem corruption and other crimes. In a briefing paper issued Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote that the government "appears to be reacting to pressure to show quick results. In their anticorruption campaign this has led to the use of harsh methods that appear effective and popular, but that violate the government's human rights obligations."

A Feb. 16 open letter by "For the Defense of Article 42 of the Constitution," an NGO, [guaranteeing the right to a fair trial] asserts that, "In the name of fighting against corruption, [the government] is violating human rights."

"The presumption that one is not guilty until the court decides so is violated in many cases," says Keti Tamashidze, executive director of the group, which advocates civil rights and fair judicial procedures. "If methods of the new government are the same as the old one's, then what was the meaning of the revolution?"

Saakashvili has dismissed critics who see "authoritarian" tendencies, telling the press this view is "sheer demagoguery."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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