A court in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, has suspended from office the city's Mayor Gigi Ugulava, the country's only elected mayor, in the wake of fresh criminal charges brought against him. The decision strips the opposition United National Movement of its last influential public officeholder.
Charged with the misuse of 48.18 million lari (over $28 million), Ugulava, a close ally of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, has accused the ruling Georgian Dream coalition of putting pressure on the Tbilisi City Court to eliminate the opposition's last remaining pocket of power.
“The Constitution knows no mechanism of dismissing an elected mayor other than an election,” he said.
The ruling occurred without hearing opposing arguments -- a scenario allowable under court procedures, a Tbilisi City Court spokesperson said, Netgazeti.ge reported.
Defenders charge that his removal from office violates the democratic value of innocent until proven guilty.
A bevy of civil-rights groups -- longtime critics of Ugulava and the UNM -- have called for an investigation into Ugulava’s claims that the government pressured the court into its ruling.
The court, however, repeatedly has denied government prosecutors' demand that Ugulava be put in jail to await trial. Rights watchdogs like Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association* charge, though, that, while judiciary independence overall has improved since the Georgian Dream came to power in October 2012, the situation remains unstable, making an examination of such claims "crucially important."
US Ambassador Richard Norland, seen by many Georgians as the de-facto guardian of the reluctant coexistence between the GD and UNM, also expressed concern over the development.