Thursday, June 17

Georgia frees jailed opposition leader Nika Melia after EU posted bail

Nika Melia, leader of Georgia’s main opposition party, United National Movement, has been released from prison, paving the way to end the political crisis in the country.

Waving Georgian and EU flags, hundreds of supporters greeted him as he left the prison in the city of Rustavi, some 25 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tbilisi.

“I want to wish the release of all political prisoners in Georgia,” Melia told the crowd.

“We are facing a ruthless opponent,” he said, referring to the ruling party. “Unfortunately, I am not the last political prisoner in Georgia.”

Melia, 41, was arrested in February 2021 after police stormed the headquarters of the main opposition party, sparking mass protests.

He is charged with inciting violence during an anti-government protest in Tbilisi in 2019.

Meliá was sent to preventive detention after he refused to pay a bail greater than 40,000 Georgian lari (9,500 euros), saying the process was politically motivated.

Then-Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned over his government’s plans to detain Melia.

Brussels and Washington led a chorus of international condemnation of Melia’s arrest, as fears mounted in the West over the perception that Georgia had backtracked on its commitments to democracy.

Meliá’s release came after the European Union posted its bail.

Negotiations between the opposition and the ruling Georgian Dream Party were mediated with the participation of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

EU representatives said that posting bail for Melia is “an important step to end the political crisis in Georgia.”

Cross Party Leader

The country in the extreme southeast of Europe has been affected by the crisis since last October’s parliamentary elections, which the opposition denounced as rigged.

Melia had united Georgia’s traditionally fractured opposition before the election, emerging as a respected cross-party leader who developed an unprecedented unified opposition front against the Georgian Dream government.

In power since 2012, Georgian Dream won the election by a narrow margin, and the opposition regularly staged mass protests in the months that followed to demand a new vote.

In March, Michel started cross-party talks that brought the Georgian government and several opposition parties to an agreement in April.

The agreement commits opposition parties to enter parliament, while Georgian Dream has promised extensive political, electoral and judicial reforms.

Under the pact, the ruling party promised to resolve cases of “justice perceived as politicized” through amnesties or similar measures within a week, the clause that refers to the criminal case against Melia.

Brussels also offered to post bail on Melia’s behalf to have him released before the amnesty bill is passed.

Potential drama ahead

UNM had resisted joining the April EU-mediated agreement that was signed by the ruling party and most opposition parties, saying it would consider doing so only once Melia was released from custody.

The refusal of UNM and another opposition party, European Georgia, to sign the agreement and end its parliamentary boycott has left around 40 vacant seats in Georgia’s 150-member legislature.

Former Georgian president in exile and UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili urged his party to sign the agreement despite its “serious shortcomings” and enter parliament after Melia’s release.

But in an announcement expected to inject more drama into Georgia’s unpredictable political landscape, the former reform leader said last month that he will return from exile in Ukraine before this year’s local elections.

Georgia’s pro-Western president in 2004-2013, Saakashvili was sentenced in 2018 by a Georgian court to six years in prison for alleged abuse of power, a ruling he denounced on political grounds.

Authorities have warned that Saakashvili will be arrested if he returns.

His conviction and charges brought against his allies by the Georgian Dream government have drawn criticism from the West for an alleged political witch hunt.

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