Tens of thousands of Georgians flooded onto the streets of the capital Tbilisi Thursday to demand the release of jailed ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Chanting Saakashvili’s nickname “Misha!” and waving national flags, demonstrators filled the city’s Freedom Square and main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, with an AFP correspondent estimating the crowd at around 60,000 people.
Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was arrested and imprisoned in early October upon his return from exile in Ukraine.
The 53-year-old founder of Georgia’s main opposition force, the United National Movement (UNM), has declared a hunger strike and doctors have expressed concern over his deteriorating health.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was convicted in absentia on charges of abuse of office and sentenced to six years in prison in 2018. He denies wrongdoing.
Saakashvili’s lawyer Nika Gvaramia read out an address to the crowd calling for the government linked to his nemesis and powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to be “destroyed” at the upcoming second round runoff of local elections.
“Georgia must return to its pro-Western path and become a beacon of democracy, reforms and development,” the letter said.
“It is time to save Georgia through our national unity and reconciliation.”
One of the demonstrators, 28-year-old lawyer Kato Topuridze said it was a “huge injustice that Saakashvili is in jail”
“He must be freed immediately.”
Another protester, Gela Chkheidze, 53, said: “Saakashvili embodies Georgia’s success as a democracy. We will not stop until we achieve his liberation.”
On Thursday morning, kilometres-long motorcades carrying Saakashvili supporters headed to Tbilisi from across the country, the independent Pirveli TV station reported.
Busloads of riot police were deployed outside the parliament building ahead of the protest.
More than 70,000 people the day before signed a petition online demanding Saakashvili’s release, a demand reiterated in fresh graffiti on buildings and pavements across the country.
Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, told journalists ahead of the rally that “Inmate Saakashvili’s sole goal is to stir up destabilisation and upheaval in the country”.
Saakashvili called on his supporters to mobilise against Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream party and is widely believed to be the man in charge in Georgia, despite having no official political role.
Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian passport after he acquired Ukrainian nationality in 2016 and went on to head a government agency steering reforms there.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he will press for Saakashvili’s release, but Georgian officials have ruled out sending the former leader to Ukraine or pardoning him.
In televised remarks that sparked an outcry among Saakashvili’s supporters, Prime Minister Garibashvili said the ex-president “had to leave politics or we had to detain him”.
The prosecution of Saakashvili and many of his allies by the current government has prompted concerns in the West. The United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian officials over the country’s backsliding on democracy.
His detention deepened a protracted political crisis in Georgia, where opposition parties decried widespread fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections, narrowly won by Georgian Dream.
Saakashvili’s return to Georgia came just ahead of local elections, which the opposition denounced as fraudulent and international observers said had been marred by widespread and consistent allegations of pressure on candidates and voters.
On Thursday, Saakashvili called for a high voter turnout in the vote’s second round runoffs to be held on October 30 and will see candidates from Georgian Dream and Saakashvili’s UNM party compete for mayoral posts in all of Georgia’s major cities.