Georgia arrests ex-president Saakashvili after returning from exile | news
Georgia arrested former President Mikheil Saakashvili after returning from eight years in exile when the ex-leader tried to mobilize supporters ahead of the national local elections, which are considered critical of the country’s political constitution.
Local media showed a video of smiling Saakashvili escorted to the Rustavi correctional facility on Friday evening.
“I would like to inform the public that the third President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been arrested. He was transferred to a correctional facility, ”Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at a press conference on Friday.
The announcement came about 18 hours after Saakashvili, convicted in absentia and living in Ukraine for the past few years, posted on Facebook that he had returned to the country. Georgian officials had previously denied that he was in Georgia.
Saakashvili called the elections on Saturday for Georgia “decisive” and had called for a rally in Tbilisi on Sunday and promised to take part.
Saakashvili was convicted of abuse of office in absentia in 2018 and sentenced to six years in prison. He denies any wrongdoing and says the case is politically motivated.
President Salome Zourabichvili said she would not pardon Saakashvili, the TASS news agency reported on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, said Saakashvili’s return to Georgia was “meaningful” and something the former leader had been talking about for many years.
“Now he seems to have put all his cards on the table and hopes that this return will somehow have an impact on Georgian politics – which is currently very controversial,” he said.
Forestier-Walker said Georgian politics has become increasingly polarized and bitter, focusing on political figures rather than issues.
“The real problems this country is facing – a battered economy and terrible COVID infection rates – have been underestimated. We now have this mercury figure from the past reappearing on stage trying to shake things up. “
Forestier-Walker said the big question now is whether his return on the eve of these local elections will have any impact on the outcome.
“Because these elections are seen as very important. These are local elections, but they are viewed by the opposition as a referendum on this government. And if the government doesn’t get enough support, it could be forced to call early elections. “
Prior to his arrest, Saakashvili lived in Ukraine, where he headed a government agency that steered reforms.
The development is expected to lead to a diplomatic incident with Ukraine, as Saakashvili only has Ukrainian citizenship, which was granted in 2015 before he was briefly governor of Odessa. His Georgian citizenship was revoked in 2015 due to the law against dual citizenship at the time.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the Georgian ambassador after his arrest.
Saakashvili has lived and worked in the Ukraine since his exile from Georgia [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
Saakashvili – who came to power in 2004 after a peaceful uprising – still has an extremely loyal following in the Caucasus country.
On Friday morning, he said in video messages on Facebook that he had returned to Georgia and was in the western city of Batumi.
He urged his supporters to vote for the United National Movement or any small party that opposes the ruling Georgian Dream party.
“Everyone has to go to the ballot box and vote, and on October 3rd we have to fill Freedom Square. If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us, ”he wrote in the video.
“You see – I risked everything – my life, my freedom, everything to get here. I just want one of you – to vote, ”he said.
Authorities claimed the video was fake and denied its presence in Georgia, which they later explained by saying it was necessary for the arrest operation.
Garibashvili said Georgian law enforcement agencies had tracked Saakashvili’s movements from Ukraine to Georgia and “chose a time and place for the police operation that would only minimally obstruct the arrest”.
Critics accused the ruling Georgian Dream Party of punishing political opponents and journalists under criminal law.
Interpol rejected requests from Tbilisi to issue a red complaint against Saakashvili.