Former Georgian PM faces new charges

Georgian prosecutors say they have filed fresh charges against former prime minister Vano Merabishvili, a key ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, accusing him of covering up an investigation into a high-profile murder case.

Merabishvili, already in jail since being detained last month on other charges, is accused of "committing different actions aimed at concealing the criminals" responsible for the 2006 killing of banker Sandro Girgvliani.

Merabishvili, who was interior minister at the time, faces up to five years in jail over the incident which sparked a major political scandal in the country. His other charges of graft and abuse of power can carry up to 12 and eight years in jail, respectively.

Four interior ministry officials found guilty of causing the banker's death were released from jail in 2009 but those close to the victim claimed Merabishvili had covered up the involvement of higher-ranking officials.

Merabishvili has always strongly denied the allegations.

Merabishvili is the most prominent figure yet arrested in a slew of investigations against top allies of Saakashvili, whose United National Movement (UNM) party lost out to a coalition headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili at parliamentary elections in October.

The former prime minister already faces up to 12 years in jail on charges that he illegally funnelled money from a government employment scheme to UNM supporters in the run-up to October's election.

He also stands accused of ordering a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrations in 2011 in which one policeman and three protesters died.

Merabishvili -- who heads the UNM -- has denied the charges and dismissed them as the latest step in a political witch hunt by Ivanishvili against officials who served under Saakashvili.

After taking power in the 2003 Rose Revolution that ousted the former Soviet elite, Saakashvili led Georgia on a strongly pro-Western course aiming for NATO membership that antagonised Moscow.

However his influence has fallen drastically since losing the parliamentary elections, and he must step down after presidential elections in October 2013.