10/16/2021, 16.42
GEORGIA
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Crowds in Tbilisi demand Saakashvili’s release, bishops too want his liberation

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Some 50,000 protesters take to the streets in support of the former president jailed on corruption charges after returning from his Ukrainian exile. Since then, "Misha" has been on a hunger strike. The Georgian Patriarchate calls for Saakashvili’s release, urging the parties to engage in political reconciliation.

Tbilisi (AsiaNews) – A large demonstration in support of Mikheil Saakashvili was held on Thursday in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

The former president was jailed by Georgian authorities upon his return to the country ahead of the 2 October local elections. Multiple charges had been pending against the former head of state.

Two days ago, thousands of supporters of the founder of the pro-Western United National Movement took to the streets. His party failed to come on top of the ruling pro-Russian Georgian Dream party.

According to media reports, at least 50,000 people gathered to demand Saakashvili’s release.

The popular politician lived in exile in Ukraine for years. During that period time, he became a Ukrainian citizen and got involved the country’s its political life, serving as Governor of Odessa.

Some of the banners carried in the crowd read: “Freedom for Misha" and "No to political persecution”.

Saakashvili's main ally and current United National Movement leader, Nika Melia, read a statement from the former president, in which he calls on all opposition forces to unite and vote on 30 October for opposition candidates taking part in the runoffs.

Saakashvili is accused of committing various offences during his term of office as president. Since his return, he is also accused of illegally crossing the Georgian border, which he did by hiding in a pick-up truck.

Once in a Tbilisi prison, he began a hunger strike, which has now lasted for 13 days. On Monday, rumours spread that his health had taken a sudden turn for the worse, drawing a crowd to the prison where he is detained.

Following this, prison authorities issued a statement to reassure the public that he was doing fine, confirmed by subsequent visits by Saakashvili’s relatives and lawyer. Nevertheless, the prisoner remains very determined to assert his arguments.

Justice Minister Rati Bregadze, Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze, and some representatives of the country’s parliament yesterday named a four-member medical commission who, together with the detainee's personal doctor, will monitor his state of health.

Some Orthodox bishops, members of the Synod of the Patriarchate of Georgia, signed a petition, circulated by the United National Movement, calling for the former head of state to be set free.

According to Interfax, hierarchs like Metropolitan of Akhalkalaki Nikoloz (Pachuashvili), Bishop of Margveti Melchizedek (Khachidze), and Metropolitan of Vani and Bagdati Anton (Buluhiya) have joined the call.

Metropolitan Nikoloz also issued a statement to the press. In it, he says that "there are no sinless men, and the current government leaders must not detain by force political leaders from previous period” because, in his opinion, “the country will not grow if every new leader arrests his predecessor.”

After meeting the former president in prison, Nikoloz said he hoped that “after Saakashvili's release a new era in Georgia's history can begin, when politicians of the past and present can find a common language and abandon the rhetoric of hatred in order to reconcile in mutual Christian forgiveness.”

Metropolitan Anton also spoke out, suggesting that Saakashvili be placed under house arrest until the end of his trials. 

A petition has already been signed by more than 11,000 people, including culture and labour leaders. Other groups are submitting similar petitions for his release.

By contrast, current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said he was "very bitter about the media circus created around Saakashvili’s return, which only heats up social tensions before the second round of elections, in which the oppositions are destined to lose without extenuating circumstances. This is why they say he's sick, even though he eats half a kilo of honey a day.”

An opponent, Eki Kherkheulidze, accused the prime minister of more manipulation. After visiting the former president in his cell, she said that he only takes a cup of tea a day “with a single teaspoon of honey”.

As several commentators have noted, the controversy surrounding the hunger strike allows Saakashvili to "exchange his considerable physical weight for greater political weight", thus managing not only to influence the runoff but also drawing the country’s attention and keeping somehow the Georgian Dream regime in check. 

At this point only a pardon by President Salome Zourabichvili could somehow deflate the hype over her predecessor’s detention and his rise to the status of national hero.

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