On January 10, 2017, Managing Editor of Georgia’s Sakinformi news agency, Anro Khidirbegishvili, published an opinion piece saying that the main purpose of a U.S. Congressional Delegation visit to Georgia on January 1-2, 2017 was to demand an “immediate” release from prison of convicted former government officials.
Khidirbegishvili wrote, “McCain flew to Georgia to demand from officials in Tbilisi that they immediately release from prison the former (and future) Mayor of Tbilisi Ugulava, ’the legendary‘ Minister Merabishvili, and the rest of the “political prisoners.” And as always, he was not refused…"
However, a Georgian official, Congressional sources and experts have told Polygraph.info that the U.S. delegation did not go to Georgia to demand a prisoner release and the topic was not discussed.
As a part of a regional trip to five countries to reinforce U.S. support for NATO, Senators John McCain (R, AZ), Lindsey Graham (R, SC), and Amy Klobuchar (D, MN) visited Georgia from January 1-2, 2017. On January 6, 2017, the former Mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, one of the opposition leaders, was released from prison.
But the visit and the timing of the mayor’s release were not related as Khidirbegishvili claimed, according to David Bakradze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, who was present for the meetings.
“During the meetings with Georgian officials not a single case of custody or release of a prisoner was discussed (directly or indirectly),“ Bakradze wrote in an email to Polygraph.info. “Throughout the years, (the) USA contributes to strengthening the rule of law, democracy and independence of judiciary in Georgia.”
McCain’s office had no comment when asked whether the prisoner issue was raised. However, in response to a Polygraph.info email inquiry about the purpose of the trip, McCain’s spokeswoman characterized the visit as “a demonstration of Congress's bipartisan commitment” to Georgia. The statement further read, “Senator McCain has deep affection for Georgia and its people developed over many years. He was honored to lead a delegation as a sign of the enduring friendship between the United States and Georgia.”
The offices of Senators Graham and Klobuchar did not respond to requests for comment by Polygraph.info.
The three Senators met with the Georgian Prime Minister, Georgia’s President and other political leaders of Georgia, including opposition and civil society leaders.
As part of their official duties, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives regularly visit countries around the world. This includes visiting countries that receive American assistance in order to reaffirm U.S. support, to check the effectiveness of aid programs funded by American taxpayers, and to have first-hand knowledge of the situation in that country.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Kenneth Yalowitz, said that the U.S. Senators’ visit to Georgia before the impending U.S. change of administration was meant to reaffirm that “there will be consistency in U.S. policy.”
In an interview with Polygraph.info, Yalowitz said that any claim that the U.S. Senators would meddle in the internal affairs of Georgia “is aimed at discrediting the United States, its foreign policy, and at weakening and undermining U.S.-Georgia relations.”
The current Georgian government has arrested several former government officials whom they accuse of various crimes committed while they were in power. A few others, who left Georgia before their arrest warrants were issued, are wanted by police, including former president Mikhael Saakashvili.
In the past, McCain has publicly cautioned the current Georgian government to respect the rule of law and to prevent even the appearance of using the judiciary for retribution against political opponents.
Ex-mayor Ugulava was arrested as he was boarding a flight to Ukraine in the summer of 2014. In September 2015, he was released from prison after a court ruled that his 14-month pre-trail detention exceeded the legally allowed nine months and was therefore unconstitutional. Ugulava was then re-arrested on the same day on different charges.
On January 6, 2017, by reclassifying his offense to a lesser crime, an appeals court shortened the former mayor’s sentence. Ugulava was released on January 6, 2017, three days before the date set by the court.