Tbilisi: A court in ex-Soviet Georgia on Friday sentenced a top opposition leader to four and a half years in jail for misspending public funds, a charge he denounced as trumped-up and politically motivated.
The verdict came a day after Gigi Ugulava -- former mayor of the capital Tbilisi and an ally of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili -- was released from custody following the Constitutional Court`s ruling that his 14-month pre-trial detention was "illegal".
The original sentence was a nine-year jail term, but it was halved due to the terms of an amnesty act passed by Georgia`s parliament in 2012 which covers both the crime Ugulava was charged with, and the period during which they were committed.
Judge Lasha Chkhartishvili found Ugulava guilty of the fictitious employment of hundreds of activists from Saakashvili`s party in the Tbilisi municipality but acquitted him, along with former defence minister David Kezerashvili -- who was standing the same trial in absentia -- on money laundering charges.
Ugulava`s lawyer Beka Basilaia denounced the verdict as part of "the government`s witch-hunt against political opponents".
"We will appeal the illegal and politically motivated verdict to a higher court," Basilaia told AFP. "There is no proof whatsoever of my client`s guilt."
Ugulava, 40, is one of over a dozen former top officials prosecuted after his fiercely pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) party lost legislative elections to the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition in 2012.
Ugulava and his lawyers refused to enter the courtroom to listen the verdict in protest against what he claimed was a "farce trial and a chronicle of a jailing foretold".
Hugging his two teenage daughters, Ugulava delivered an emotional speech, standing on the staircase of the court building in Tbilisi as hundreds of supporters chanted his name.
He said his fresh imprisonment was a foregone conclusion and accused Georgia`s former premier and billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili of orchestrating his prosecution.
Before bailiffs escorted him to custody, Ugulava vowed to defeat the Georgian Dream in the next parliamentary elections, saying that "2016 is the maximum term for Ivanishvili to stay in power".
Ivanishvili stepped down in 2013 and chose his protege Irakli Garibashvili to take over as premier, but it is widely believed that the tycoon continues to wield power behind the scenes over the tiny Caucasus nation of 3.7 million people.
Arrests of former top Saakashvili officials -- including ex-prime minister Vano Merabishvili -- for alleged wrongdoing prompted warnings from the West over selective justice and the perceived persecution of political opponents.
During his tenure as the mayor of Tbilisi, charismatic Ugulava led major infrastructure projects and social reforms which saw a dramatic improvement in living standards in the Georgian capital.