TBILISI -- Police in Tbilisi have arrested dozens of protesters demanding the release of jailed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as his trial in a case related to the dispersal of a 2007 opposition rally kicked off in Georgia's capital.
The opposition leader, who served as president between 2004 and 2013, has been on hunger strike for 41 days. He was detained on October 1 upon his return from eight years in self-exile to campaign for the opposition ahead of local elections, exacerbating a political crisis that began after last year's parliamentary polls that the opposition denounced as fraudulent. Hundreds of Saakashvili supporters on November 10 rallied outside government buildings and in front of the courtroom where his trial started without the presence of the accused. The Interior Ministry said police had detained 46 people, who were charged with administrative offenses.
Those detained "exceeded the legal limits to freedom of assembly and attempted to blockade administrative buildings," the ministry said. Georgia's penitentiary service decided not to bring Saakashvili from detention to the Tbilisi City Court, citing coronavirus precautions and his poor health. It also argued that the presence of the accused at the trial "may provoke disorders."
His co-defendant, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, was ordered to leave the courtroom after he demanded Saakashvili's presence at the trial. Saakashvili's lawyers also demanded their client be brought to court and filed a motion to recuse the judge, after which the trial was adjourned until November 29. Saakashvili denies any role in the violent dispersal of protesters in Tbilisi in November 2007. Earlier this week, Saakashvili was moved from a prison in the city of Rustavi to the Gldani prison clinic, where he claimed he was verbally and physically abused by guards.
He said in a letter released through his lawyer that they punched him in the neck and dragged him by his hair on the ground.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on November 9 urged the Georgian government to treat Saakashvili "fairly and with dignity." Georgia's rights ombudswoman, Nino Lomjaria, said Saakashvili had been "under psychological pressure" in custody. Saakashvili left the country shortly after the presidential election of 2013 and was convicted in absentia in 2018 for abuse of power and seeking to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition member of parliament. He has rejected the charges as politically motivated. Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) party was outpolled decisively by the ruling Georgian Dream party in the October 3 nationwide municipal and mayoral vote. The opposition has claimed that Georgian Dream, which won mayoral races in the country's five biggest cities as a result of the vote, rigged the election.