Georgia's Ex-Defense Minister Handed 11-Year Jail Sentence

TBILISI, Georgia -- A court in Georgia has found the country's former defense minister and opposition politician, Irakly Okruashvili, guilty of corruption and jailed him for 11 years in absentia.

The prison sentence means that Okruashvili will be banned from standing in next month's parliamentary election, in which President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to have to struggle to retain his majority.

"Okruashvili has been sentenced to 11 years for bribery involving large amounts of money and extortion," said Eka Chichua, spokeswoman for the Tbilisi City Court.

Georgia hosts a strategic oil pipeline running from Asia to Europe, and the United States and Russia are vying for influence here.

Okruashvili, 34, fled to Europe last year after being granted bail in Georgia and is now in Paris waiting for a French court to decide on a Georgian extradition request.

He has repeatedly said he wants to remain active in Georgian politics even from exile, and his lawyer, Eke Beselia, accused the authorities of using the courts as a political tool to disqualify Okruashvili for taking part in forthcoming elections.

Police arrested Okruashvili in September, triggering mass demonstrations and helping unite the fractured opposition.

"Given the strength the opposition has now, I don't think the absence of one person will be tragic," said Tina Khidasheli, Republican party leader.

Tbilisi, the intellectual center of Georgia where people have access to critical media, is an opposition stronghold, but outside the capital Saakashvili retains strong popularity.