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By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A Georgian court sentenced a former prime minister on Monday to five years in prison for corruption in a verdict that the opposition branded as part of a government witch-hunt against its foes.
Vano Merabishvili was convicted of abuse of power and other crimes at the trial in the western city of Kutaisi. He served as prime minister for less than four months in 2012 under Georgia's then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, until their United National Movement (UNM) lost a parliamentary election.
Defence lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.
"It is obvious that the judge failed to withstand pressure from the government," UNM member Giga Bokeria told reporters.
"It is a very bad day not only for justice, but also for Georgia's democratic traditions."
Western countries have aired concerns that the new government has used selective justice and political persecution against opponents in the mountainous ex-Soviet republic, which is a pivot of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.
Merabishvili, also a secretary general of the UNM, is the highest ex-official to be convicted since billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili led his coalition to victory in the 2012 parliamentary election, ending nine years of dominance by Saakashvili. His term as president ended last year.
The judge ruled that the actions of former health minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, a co-defendant of Merabishvili, constituted neglect of official duty rather than abuse of power and ordered him to pay a fine of 50,000 lari ($29,000).
The first case against Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili involved allegations that they funnelled over 5.2 million lari of public funds to the UNM's election campaign ahead of the parliamentary election in 2012.
The second case involved allegations that Merabishvili misappropriated a seaside villa from its private owner and used over 157,000 lari of interior ministry funds to refurbish it in 2009. He denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
Merabishvili is also on trial on separate charges involving "aggravated abuse of office" in connection to the break up a protest rally in May 2011, when he was the interior minister.
In addition he faces criminal charges, that he also denies, involving alleged abuse of office, in connection to a murder case of a Georgian banker in 2006.
($1=1.73 lari) (Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by)
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