Thousands of supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili jammed downtown Tbilisi this evening to demand the release of hunger striking former President, arrested on October 1 on the eve of local elections, few days after puzzling return from Ukraine to Georgia.
Protesters shouting “Georgia, Georgia!” and “Free Misha!” marched from the First Republic Square to main Freedom Square, stopping traffic at Shota Rustaveli Avenue, the capital city’s main thoroughfare.
“I came here over great hardship [we have] in Georgia… We have got nothing. We want the government to change,” a woman hailing from western Samegrelo region, a traditional stronghold of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Dozens of counter protesters, including some alleged local officials, have met protesters driving from regions to Tbilisi in western Abasha municipality and southern Rustavi town with brooms, in reference to prison abuse videos, which emerged ahead of the 2012 elections and which showed an inmate sexually assaulted by prison guards with a broom.
Saakashvili’s Address from Prison
At the rally on Freedom Square, Nika Gvaramia, director general of government-critical Mtavari Arkhi TV and Saakashvili’s defense lawyer, read out the address by former President from Rustavi prison. “My foremost wish is Georgians to have a state, distinguished by freedom and welfare, fairness and safety, as the oldest Europeans, we should have a European country.”
“I am here [in Georgia], firmly decided to stay to contribute to the defeat of the regime, to have my share in the fight of Georgian people against poverty, corruption, injustice and destruction,” said Saakashvili’s letter.
In his missive, the former President vowed “to stand up to [Georgian Dream founder Bidzina] Ivanishvili regime that is dragging our country towards Putin’s Russia.”
“We should return Georgia to path to the West, turn it into the lighthouse of democracy, reforms and development,” Saakashvili went on, adding that “it is of utmost importance to realize that our country and society needs a great reconciliation. We should be ready for it.”
Doubling down on reconciliation, Saakashvili wrote that “we need to have a great reconciliation, and to refuse revanche and revenge,” also calling for supporters to vote in runoffs, slated for October 30.
Melia’s Address, Rally Concludes
United National Movement chair Nika Melia, contending for Tbilisi mayor in October 30 runoffs, concluded the rally with a more than half-an-hour-long speech.
Hailing the detained former President’s “self-sacrifice,” Melia said Saakashvili’s actions have “cracked the regime.”
“The government is afraid,” argued Melia, pointing to counterprotesters, allegedly local officials, meeting Saakashvili’s supporters en route to the capital with brooms.
The UNM leader said “our end-goal is protecting ourselves, our families, state and votes,” warning that “either [GD founder] Bidzina Ivanishvili will accept he is losing on October 30, or the fight will continue.”
The Tbilisi mayoral hopeful called for a high turnout in the runoffs. In his final remarks, Melia called for the protest to finish, and appealed to the demonstrators to begin preparing for October 30 runoffs.
Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian citizen, left the country in November 2013 amidst the end of his second presidential term. He was wanted by the Georgian Dream government on multiple charges for some eight years.
The former President was sentenced in absentia in 2018 on two separate abuse of power charges – three years for pardoning the former Interior Ministry officials, convicted in the high-profile murder case of Sandro Girgvliani, and six years for organizing an attack on opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili.
Since October 1, Georgian authorities are leading a new investigation over Saakashvili’s illegal border crossing. In this regard, new charges may be brought against him under Article 344 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, punishable by three to five years of prison.
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