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Officials arrested in Georgian soldier abuse

Georgian soldiers wait for defense Minister Irakli Alasania prior to his visit to Mukrovani military base, in Georgia, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012.

TBILISI, Georgia — Police arrested the joint chief of staff of Georgia's armed forces and the former defense minister Wednesday in connection with the alleged abuse of soldiers. The opposition attacked the move as persecution of political opponents by the newly elected prime minister.

Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili said the officials are suspected of exceeding their power, but charges have not yet been filed.

He said the arrests stem from an incident in October 2011 in which Bacho Akhalaia — who was then defense minister — allegedly physically and verbally abused six soldiers. He said joint chief of staff Georgy Kalandadze also was present.

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The commander of the soldiers' brigade, Zurab Shamatava, also was taken into custody. The three former officials each face up to eight years in jail if convicted, he said.

Opponents of new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili claimed the arrests were politically motivated.

"This is the deed of cowards," said Akaki Minashvili, a lawmaker with President Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement.

Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition won last month's parliamentary election, defeating Saakashvili's party. Ivanishvili, an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune in Russia and until recently was little known in his ex-Soviet homeland, has repeatedly pledged to investigate Saakashvili-appointed officials accused of abusing their powers.

During his nearly nine years in power, Saakashvili has pushed through economic and political reforms and attracted international investment that has led to dramatic economic growth. But he lost much of his popularity after Georgia's humiliating defeat in the brief 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Under a constitutional reform due to take effect when Saakashvili leaves office in October 2013, many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister

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