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16 Apr, 2008 01:38

Crunch time for Georgia’s rebel minister

A French court is expected to rule on a request by Tbilisi to extradite the country's former Defence Minister, Irakly Okruashvili. Currently living in France, he's been found guilty of extortion in Georgia and sentenced in his absence to 11 years in priso

If he is sent back, he will stand trial for a string of other alleged crimes: extortion with the participation of an organised group, money laundering and abuse of power.

Okruashvili, a harsh critic of current President Mikhail Saakashvili, says the charges against him are politically motivated.

On Wednesday, a French court is expected to decide whether to send him home.

Tough, young and dynamic, Okruashvili was once a leading figure in President Saakashvili's government. After the Rose Revolution of 2003, which swept them to power, Saakashvili appointed his protégé to a number of top positions.

It was as Defence Minister that he made his mark. With his penchant for personally trying out equipment, he cultivated a tough image. He was once tipped as a possible successor to Saakashvili, and his hawkish stance on the question of Georgia's breakaway regions won him popularity among many.

But it was statements like this which caused serious concern for the government.

“I never make promises I don't keep, and I can definitely say that all of us together will greet the new year of 2007 in South Ossetia – whoever trusts me, come with me!” Okruashvili once said.

Okruashvili was demoted to Economy Minister in late 2006 and quit soon after.

Speculation immediately began that the ex-minister would join the opposition, but no one could have predicted just how provocative that move would be.

“Saakashvili's entourage has gone beyond the limits and made unlawfulness and suppression of people a general practice. Daily repressions, destructions of homes and churches, killings – I would like to stress killings – have become common practice of the authorities,” Okruashvili claimed in 2007.

Soon after these accusations were made, Okruashvili was arrested. He confessed to the charges in a televised statement, and was released on bail of $US 6 million.

He fled to Europe, saying he'd been forced out of Georgia. But as far as the authorities are concerned, he skipped bail.