Thousands of people marched in Tbilisi demanding the release of imprisoned opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Waving the Georgia Five Crosses flag and holding banners reading “Free Saakashvili!” Protesters marched through the Georgian capital before gathering in front of parliament for the rally scheduled to coincide with the politician’s 54th birthday.
The protesters promised to start a “massive hunger strike” until he is released.
Saakashvili’s arrest sparked a political crisis stemming from last year’s parliamentary elections, which the opposition has denounced as fraudulent. It also sparked the largest anti-government protests in a decade.
“Today, we are launching a massive hunger strike that will not end until Mikheil Saakashvili is released from captivity,” Nika Melia, president of the United National Movement (UNM) of Saakashvili, told the crowd.
It is not clear how many people intend to participate in the hunger strike in front of the UNM headquarters.
“This is a non-violent protest, a tough movement, we have no choice but to pressure the regime to loosen its grip on the Georgian state it has captured,” Melia added.
‘We need freedom here and now’
The announcement comes as Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili aims to facilitate a “national reconciliation” to overcome political polarization and division among the public.
Melia welcomed the national reconciliation process initiated by Zourabishvili and promised that the opposition would do everything possible to play a positive role in this process.
In a message to supporters read at the rally by Saakashvili’s mother, Giuli Alasania, the former leader called for national unity and peaceful mass protests to pressure the authorities to hold speedy parliamentary elections.
He said that Georgia’s “long-standing dream and historic aspiration for European integration are threatened.”
“We have a vital need for free media, an impartial judiciary, fair elections. We need freedom here and now, and forever.”
“Changing the current regime is an essential precondition for the fulfillment of our Western aspirations,” Saakashvili continued, referring to the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded by the powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.
‘We won’t stop until Saakashvili is free’
Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who made his fortune in Russia, is believed to be the top decision-maker in the country, despite having no official political role.
One of the protesters, 47-year-old architect Giorgi Darsavelidze, claimed that “the Ivanishvili regime will collapse under popular pressure.”
“We will not stop until Saakashvili is free, until Georgia returns to its European path,” he said.
On Saturday, an independent board of doctors that examined Saakashvili in custody said he had developed serious neurological diseases “as a result of torture, ill-treatment, inadequate medical care and a prolonged hunger strike.”
Saakashvili refused to eat for 50 days to protest his imprisonment for abuse of power, a conviction he has denounced on political grounds.
The pro-Western reformer called off his hunger strike after he was placed, in critical condition, in a military hospital in the eastern Georgia town of Gori.
Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was arrested on October 1 this year, shortly after he secretly returned to Georgia from exile in Ukraine.
The human rights group Amnesty International has called Saakashvili’s treatment “not just selective justice, but apparent political revenge.”
The US State Department has urged the Georgia government to “treat Saakashvili with justice and dignity.”
Several other human rights groups have accused the Georgian government of using criminal proceedings to punish political opponents and critical media.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili recently sparked an uproar when he said the government had been forced to arrest Saakashvili because he refused to leave politics.
The former president now also faces additional charges, including illegal seizure of property, embezzlement, illegal dispersal of demonstrations and illegal border crossing.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism