TBILISI -- Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia handed in his resignation on February 18 following the detention of the head of the Caucasus country's main opposition force.
The Tbilisi City Court on February 17 granted the prosecution's request to place Nika Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM), in custody, in a case denounced by the opposition as a political witch hunt.
The court ruling came amid a political crisis in Georgia that followed parliamentary elections in October that independent monitors say were marred by irregularities. All the opposition parties are boycotting parliament, refusing to assume their mandates.
Gakharia announced his resignation at a special press briefing in Tbilisi, during which he voiced his disagreement with the ruling coalition regarding the court's decision against Melia.
“I made the decision to leave my post. Of course, I believe and want to believe that this step will help reduce polarization in the political space of our country, because I am convinced that polarization and confrontation between us is the greatest risk for the future of our country, its economic development, and overcoming all types of crises,” said Gakharia.
Melia is accused of organizing "mass violence" during 2019 anti-government protests, a charge he rejects as politically motivated. The ruling Georgian Dream party denies that.
The 41-year-old politician faces up to nine years behind bars if convicted.
Following the court decision, leaders of opposition parties and Melia’s supporters gathered at the UNM’s headquarters in Tbilisi on February 17, vowing to obstruct police if they moved to enforce the court's ruling.
The U.S. Embassy called on Georgian authorities and the opposition to "exercise maximum restraint in the wake of tonight’s ruling.”
“Violence serves no one except those who want to undermine Georgia’s stability. This must be resolved peacefully,” it tweeted.
Ahead of the court decision, the European Union's envoy to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, described the circumstances surrounding Melia's prosecution as a "dangerous trajectory for Georgia and for Georgian democracy.”
Hartzell said the case will definitely have a “wider impact” on the political landscape and on further developments in the country.
On February 16, parliament voted to suspend Melia’s immunity from prosecution, paving the way for his pretrial detention.
The prosecution's motion followed his refusal to pay an increased bail fee of 40,000 lari ($12,000). The opposition leader initially posted bail in 2019 but the amount was increased after he publicly removed his electronic-monitoring bracelet during a postelection rally in November 2020.