Georgia: France grants political asylum to ex-Saakashvili ally
|Publication Date||24 April 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Georgia: France grants political asylum to ex-Saakashvili ally, 24 April 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4817157bc.html [accessed 26 December 2014]|
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Nina Akhmeteli: 4/24/08
France's decision to grant political asylum to ex-Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, once one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's closest confidantes, has sharpened an ongoing debate inside Georgia about the government's commitment to democratization. Preoccupied with a diplomatic crisis involving Russia, the Georgian government has not commented on the French decision.
The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons made its decision on April 21, Okruashvili's Georgian lawyer, Eka Beselia told reporters in Tbilisi on April 23. Formal documents granting the ex-defense minister asylum in France are expected to be handed over on April 28, she said.
A French court decision is also expected in June on the Georgian government's demand to extradite Okruashvili from Paris to Tbilisi to face prosecution on various criminal charges. Okruashvili's lawyers say the likelihood is now slim that the request will be granted. "The extradition issue will be thwarted after this decision," Beselia said.
For its part, the French government has remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the political asylum decision. In an April 23 briefing, a spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that asylum decisions are made "independently," but called on Georgia's government to strengthen its democratic institutions.
"[W]e call for the continuation of the dialogue between the Georgian authorities and opposition ahead of the legislative elections in May," a statement released by the ministry said. "We continue to encourage the Georgian authorities to strengthen the freedom and pluralism of the media, and the independence of the judicial authorities."
Georgia's Office of the General Prosecutor has declined to comment on the political asylum decision pending receipt of formal notification from France.
One key parliamentarian for Saakashvili's United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia stresses that the case does not warrant particular comment. "I am not interested and have nothing special to say about it," Kote Gabashvili, chairman of parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, said told EurasiaNet. "It is a very ordinary case that may not impact either the image or the relations between our countries."
The opposition, however, has used the news to lash out at the Saakashvili administration. "This is a very significant fact that means the beginning of international isolation for Saakashvili and his regime," Kakha Kukava, a leader of the United Opposition Movement headed by ex-presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, commented to EurasiaNet.
Kukava and other opposition leaders contend that the decision could hinder Georgia's efforts to secure a Membership Action Plan from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Levan Ramishvili chairman of the Saakashvili-friendly Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, though, argues that Okruashvili's case will not attract a high degree of interest outside of Georgia. The domestic impact will be limited as well, he predicted. "Such cases happen, there is nothing unique or special about it," said Ramishvili. "Speculations about the case will follow, but I do not think it will impact the popularity of the ruling party. Much more important for society today is what this or that political party offers them."
Some civil rights observers stress that the case will only underline Georgia's need for judicial reforms. "A refusal by the French to extradite Okruashvili means that there are serious legal motives behind the decision and doubts regarding a fair trial," commented Manana Kobakhidze, board chairperson for Article 42 of the Constitution, a non-governmental organization. "The problems with an independent judiciary in Georgia are indicated in various reports by international organizations which are studied thoroughly when an extradition or political asylum issue is under consideration," she added.
Okruashvili's supporters argue that the authorities pressured the Tbilisi City Court to sentence the ex-defense minister in absentia last month to 11 years in prison for extortion. The ruling, they claim, was designed to block him from participating in the May 21 parliamentary elections. The government has dismissed the allegation. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Editor's Note: Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
Posted April 24, 2008 © Eurasianet