Tens of thousands of Georgians demonstrated in the capital Tbilisi on Thursday to demand the release of jailed former president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Singing Saakashvilithe nickname “Misha!” and waving national flags, the protesters filled the city’s Liberty Square and the main avenue Rustaveli Avenue, and an AFP correspondent estimated the crowd at more than 50,000 people.
The 53-year-old founder of Georgia’s main opposition force, the United National Movement, has declared a hunger strike and doctors have expressed concern about his deteriorating health.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was convicted in absentia on charges of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison in 2018. He has denied wrongdoing.
Saakashvili’s lawyer, Nika Gvaramia, read a speech to the crowd calling for the government linked to her main rival, powerful magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili, to be “destroyed.”
“Georgia must return to its pro-Western path and become a beacon of democracy, reform and development,” the letter said.
“It is time to save Georgia through our national unity and reconciliation.”
On Thursday morning, kilometer-long caravans carrying Saakashvili supporters made their way to Tbilisi from across the country, the independent Pirveli television station reported.
Buses full of riot police were deployed in front of the parliament building before the protest.
Saakashvili has called on his supporters to mobilize against Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream party and is believed to be the main decision-maker in the country.
Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian passport after he acquired Ukrainian nationality in 2016 and went on to head a government agency that led reforms in that country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he will push for Saakashvili’s release, but Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has ruled out sending the former leader to Ukraine.
In televised remarks that sparked outrage among Saakashvili’s supporters, Garibashvili said the former president “had to quit politics or we had to stop him.”
The prosecution of Saakashvili and many of his allies by the current government has raised concerns in the West. The United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian officials for the country’s backward movement to democracy.
His arrest deepened a protracted political crisis in Georgia, where opposition parties denounced widespread fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections, narrowly won by Georgian Dream.
Saakashvili’s return to Georgia came just before local elections, which, according to international observers, were marred by widespread and consistent allegations of pressure on candidates.
The vote gave an easy victory to the ruling party, which was accused by the opposition of fraud.