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UNM ‘in emergency mode’ after court declines to release Saakashvili

7 February 2023
A woman protests in support of Mikheil Saakashvili on 7 February. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

The opposition United National Movement (UNM) has announced ‘continuous protests’ and a suspension of their work in parliament in Georgia after former president Mikheil Saakashvili was denied release for medical treatment.

An appeal by Saakashvili to have his sentence overturned or postponed on medical grounds was dismissed by Tbilisi City Court on Monday. He has been in the Vivamedi clinic since 12 May 2022 following several hunger strikes in protest against his detention. Family members and his lawyers have said his health is deteriorating and that it is necessary to take him abroad for treatment.

‘We held 15 sessions and interrogated 24 witnesses. […] Mikheil Saakashvili’s motion for postponement or release of sentence due to illness should not be granted’, judge Giorgi Arevadze said.

On Tuesday, several hundred supporters of the UNM gathered in front of the Government Administration demanding that Saakashvili be taken abroad for treatment. They have vowed that protests will continue until their demand is met. A demonstration was held the previous day outside the home of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.

A demonstration calling for the release of former president Mikheil Saakashvili on 7 February. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Soon after the judge announced the decision, Saakashvili wrote on Facebook ‘nothing can break me!’ 

‘Now is the time to rage and fight! It’s time to join forces! Our Georgia is not to be handed over to Russia!’

Saakashvili also published a post in English in which he said he had ‘basically got a death sentence’ and would ‘stay in prison with all the lethal diseases and on a court verdict that nobody in the world except Russia recognises’.

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Miriam Lexmann, a Slovak MEP, said the ruling was ‘extremely disappointing’.

‘I remind the Georgian authorities that they are fully responsible for the ex-President Saakashvili’s health and well-being’, she wrote on Twitter.

Saakashvili is accused of abuse of power during his rule, including by using the military against anti-government protests. He faces further charges of embezzling more than ₾9 million ($3.4 million) during the last five years of his rule and for illegally crossing the state border after he smuggled himself into Georgia in September 2021.

[Read more: The 2007 crackdown — Saakashvili’s greatest mistake?]

Boycotting the parliament

While there has been increasing local and international concern about Saakashvili’s condition, the issue of securing his release has caused some debate even within his own party.

On Monday, the newly elected chair of the UNM, Levan Khabeishvili, announced the party was moving to ‘emergency mode’ and that the UNM would cease their parliamentary activities. Later, another opposition party, Strategy Aghmashenebeli, as well as independent MP Tako Charkviani also joined the boycott.

UNM chair Levan Khabeishvili addressing a demonstration outside the Government Administration on 7 February. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

‘The National Movement is no longer going to participate in parliamentary life. We are going to meet with our international partners and ambassadors to increase the pressure on the Russian Dream [a reference to the ruling Georgian Dream party] to preserve the life of President Saakashvili’, Khabeishvili said at a press briefing.

Khabeishvili has previously floated the idea of leaving parliament. On 31 January, he announced the party would leave parliament and city councils and hand over their property in exchange for Saakashvili’s release. 

Levan Bezhashvili, a leading member of the party, later clarified that while they would not take part in any parliamentary work, they had not yet taken the decision to give up their seats.

The recently ousted party chair, Nika Melia, however, said the decision to leave parliament would ‘not be effective’.

‘By being in the boycott mode — we create comfort only for the ruling party’.

Irakli Kobakhidze, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, responded to the UNM’s statement by saying that a boycott by them and other ‘radicals’ would have a positive impact on the work of parliament.

‘For us, it doesn’t matter where the [UNM] will be, outside parliament, in a boycott, or wherever. We have our own agenda, and we will continue to act according to this agenda’, Kobakhidze said in a speech addressing Parliament.