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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abashidze Gets Stiff Sentence in Absentia

ReutersAslan Abashidze in 2003
TBILISI, Georgia -- A long-ruling regional leader in Georgia who was ousted nearly three years ago, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia for abuse of office and fined $57 million, officials said Monday.

Aslan Abashidze, who for many years governed Georgia's Black Sea province of Adzharia like a personal fiefdom and withheld many taxes, took refuge in Russia in May 2004.

This followed a tense standoff with President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was elected months earlier amid pledges to reunite the fractured country by reining in separatist provinces and regional strongmen.

The municipal court in Adzharia's main city, Batumi, convicted Abashidze of embezzlement and abuse of power and fined him an amount equal to what he is accused of appropriating from the state budget, said Luisa Kirkitadze, a court spokeswoman. Abashidze's sentence will start when he is arrested.

Abashidze's lawyer, Shalva Shavgulidze, said his client strongly disagreed with the court ruling, but in line with a new law could not appeal a decision taken in absentia unless he surrendered to the authorities.

"We regard this sentence as groundless and would like to appeal it," Shavgulidze said.

While in power, Tbilisi also accused Abashidze of ignoring its instructions and building ties with foreign countries over its head -- a reference to Russia, which Georgia has accused of fomenting separatism on its territory.

He set up a television station that broadcast from Batumi in English, French and Russian to viewers across the globe.

Saakashvili guaranteed Abashidze's immunity after his departure, but later said everyone from the previous government who was charged had to be prosecuted.

Saakashvili's establishment of control over Adzharia was a victory for the pro-Western president, but he has been unable to bring two separatist provinces that run their own affairs, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, back into the fold.

(AP, Reuters)