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23 Apr, 2008 16:31

France grants rebel Georgian asylum: lawyer

Georgia's former Defence Minister Irakly Okruashvili has been granted political asylum in France, according to his lawyer. So far there has been no official confirmation. Georgian officials haven’t made any comments either.

“It is a very important thing that France recognised that Okruashvili was a political prisoner and decided to grant him political asylum. For us it is confirmation that he was persecuted for his political activities in Georgia,” said Okruashvili’s lawyer Eka Beselia.

Okruashvili was once the right hand man of Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili. He gained popularity and influence as a hands-on, straight-shooting defence minister.

But his aggressive speeches and tough demeanour alienated many, and he resigned from the cabinet in 2006. One year on, the ex-minister moved into opposition, launching a blistering attack on his former mentor.

He was arrested days later on corruption charges – prompting massive street protests. He confessed in a televised statement and was released on a 6 million dollar bail.

Whilst on bail he travelled to Europe. Okruashvili says he was forced out of Georgia but the authorities insist he absconded.

After he was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Georgian court in his absence, Georgian prosecutors asked France to extradite him. That hearing will take place in June, but Okrruashvili’s French lawyers say Paris is now unlikely to extradite a political refugee.

Even though it still technically possible that Okruashvili could be extradited, some legal experts in Tbilisi say that granting him the status of a political refugee is an indictment of Georgia's judicial system.

“The implication of granting political asylum to Okruashvili may mean that there aren’t sufficient guarantees in Georgia – in case of his extradition – that he won’t be ill-treated,” said Sopho Japaridze from the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association.