Europe, United States criticise Georgia over opposition leader's jailing

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The European Union and the United States urged Georgia to reinforce democracy on Wednesday after an opposition leader was jailed for a second time in a case activists say is politically motivated.

Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the European Georgia party, was sentenced by the Supreme Court on Monday to 38 months in jail on charges of misusing public funds while mayor of Tbilisi, his second conviction on similar charges.

Criminal cases have been opened against other opposition leaders amid mass protests against the government and the ruling Georgian Dream party that began last summer.

Following Monday's Supreme Court ruling, opposition parties decided to cease talks with the ruling party on electoral reform aimed at ending their standoff. The opposition says it will resume mass protests soon.

The European Union said it was scrutinising the Supreme Court ruling against Ugulava closely.

"The circumstances around this verdict are not conducive to advancing the political dialogue aimed at a much needed depolarisation of the political situation in Georgia," the EU mission in Georgia said in a statement.

The South Caucasus country, which serves as a transit route for Caspian Sea oil and gas, was widely praised for establishing democratic institutions in the post-Soviet era.

But human rights watchdogs have criticised the current government over a lack of progress on judicial reform and for putting pressure on independent media.

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Ugulava was first imprisoned for a similar offence in September 2015, for four-and-a-half years, but was freed in January 2017 after his sentence was reduced.

Mayor of Tbilisi from 2005-2013 and now one of Georgia's most active opposition leaders, he was sentenced again in 2018, to 15 months in prison, in the same case, but his sentence was considered to have been served.

U.S. senators and congressmen have written to the Georgian government since December expressing concerns over level of democracy in the former Soviet republic of 3.7 million people.

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"The U.S. Embassy is disappointed that the timing and context of the conviction and sentencing of an opposition leader ... has put the dialogue at risk," the Embassy said.

"An environment conducive to the successful continuation of the dialogue requires an independent, transparent judicial system free of political influence," its statement said.

The ruling Georgian Dream party, led by Georgia's richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili, faces parliamentary elections this year. Opponents accuse him of ruling the country from behind the scenes despite having no formal role in government. (Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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