One of the contenders for leadership of Georgia's opposition United National Movement (UNM) party has threatened to break Mikheil Saakashvili out of jail after the former president contracted COVID-19.
Speaking to TV Pirveli on Tuesday, Levan Khabeishvili said that if necessary, he would ‘physically’ free Saakashvili from custody.
Khabeishvili is challenging Nika Melia’s leadership of the country’s largest opposition party, a party founded by Saakashvili.
Khabeishvili’s comments came as reports continue to emerge about Saakashvili’s health condition, which has deteriorated following several hunger strikes.
Last May, Saakashvili was transferred from prison to the Vivamedi clinic for treatment, where he remains. However, supporters and family members have demanded that he be transferred abroad for treatment.
On Tuesday, Zurab Chkhaidze, the Clinical Director of Vivamedi, said Saakashvili was suffering from a fever and joint pain, and that he had been diagnosed with a ‘mild’ form of COVID-19.
‘Risks certainly exist, but at this stage, the situation is stable’, Chkhaidze said.
According to Mtavari Arkhi, Saakashvili’s lawyer, Shalva Khachapuridze, has demanded that the former president be transferred to intensive care.
Saakashvili was arrested in October 2021 after sneaking into the country and sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of office. He faces several additional charges relating to his time in power.
Supporters of the convicted former president, have also begun to push for a ‘Saakashvili list’. The initiative is a reference to the ‘Magnitsky Act’, which was passed by the US in order to sanction individuals implicated in human rights abuses.
The Magnitsky Act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after exposing corruption in Russia.
Bill Browder, a former colleague of Magnitsky and a vocal proponent of the Magnitsky Act, has also endorsed the Saakashvili list. In a Tweet on Tuesday, Browder said he had met with Saakashvili’s uncle and lawyer ‘to discuss finalising a Magnitsky list for those torturing Mikheil in prison.’
‘Mikheil is dying and time is of the essence’, he wrote.
Internal split in the UNM
The debate around Saakashvili’s health has raised a stark contrast in the priorities of the two main candidates for the leadership of the UNM.
Levan Khabeishvili has focused almost entirely on the release of Mikheil Saakashvili, even promising to open ‘Save Misha offices’ in every part of the country if elected chair.
The current chair, Nika Melia, has focused far less on Saakashvili. Hours after reports emerged of Saakashvili’s COVID-19 diagnoses, Melia called a press conference in which he failed to mention Saakashvili. Instead, he announced personnel changes he would implement in the party leadership if he were reelected. This included replacing the party’s general secretary, Petre Tsiskarishvili, who has backed Khabeishvili for the leadership.
Party elections are scheduled for 28–30 January and are open to any member of the party who registers in advance. As of Wednesday, the party said that 44,000 people had registered to vote.
Four members of the party will compete: Melia and Khabeishvili are widely seen as the frontrunners, with Giorgi Mumladze and Nona Mamulashvili also on the ballot.