Around 300 supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili have announced they are going on a hunger strike calling for the release of the former president.
Nika Melia, the chair of Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party (UNM), announced the strike at a protest in central Tbilisi on Tuesday marking the former President’s 54th birthday.
The third Georgian President was arrested on 1 October shortly after smuggling himself into the country and has since been serving a 6-year prison term for which he was sentenced in absentia. He is also facing two additional court cases for abusing power while in office.
[Read on OC Media: The 2007 crackdown — Saakashvili's greatest mistake?]
Soon after Melia’s speech on Tuesday night, the UNM set up several large tents with mattresses outside their offices in Tbilisi to shelter the hunger-strikers.
Several leading members of the ruling Georgian Dream Party were quick to ridicule the announcement.
‘Nothing will change for them, except that they will get slimmer’, MP Beka Davitualiani commented on Wednesday.
A hunger strike after a 50-day hunger strike
The announcement of the hunger strike came a month after Saakashvili himself ended a 50-day hunger strike protesting his imprisonment.
The long hunger strike did not result in Saakashvili, still a Ukrainian citizen, being freed from detention.
However, local and international reactions to the reports of his mistreatment at Gldani Prison in Tbilisi and a parallel hunger strike by supporters forced the authorities to offer to move him to a military hospital in the central Georgian town of Gori to recover.
A number of doctors monitoring his rehabilitation have insisted since that while the hospital in Gori was the best of the options he was offered, it was still unfit for his recovery.
On 21 December, Ukrainian news site Evropeyskaya Pravda cited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as saying that he had personally kept in touch with Saakashvili and that the Ukrainian Government was seeking to involve their own doctors in monitoring his health.
The outlet cited Zelensky saying that President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was also involved in ongoing talks about this matter.
Protest amidst efforts for ‘national accord’
The latest hunger strike started amidst intensified talks initiated by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili with opposition leaders to reach a ‘national accord’ amidst growing polarisation.
Nike Melia, who like other leaders of the UNM snubbed a New Year Reception for political leaders hosted by Zurabishvili on 16 December, said he still planned to meet the Georgian President one-on-one next week.
The meeting appeared to be a follow-up to Zurabishvili’s pledge during the 10 December Summit for Democracies to start an inclusive ‘national conversation’ to help Georgia ‘move forward’.
The day after Zurabishvili’s speech at the Summit, Saakashvili quickly responded by suggesting that the three living presidents, himself, his successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili (2013–2018), and Zurabishvili, meet.
While most opposition parties have not said that Saakashvili’s freedom should be the outcome of the negotiations, his supporters earlier tried to pressure Zurabishvili to pardon him.
Nika Melia and the UNM have insisted since 21 December that their hunger strike is not intended to jeopardise the talks under the President’s Office.