Mikkheil Saakashvii, the former president of Georgia who is currently behind bars for alleged abuse of office, has declared that he is going on hunger strike in a dispute over an upcoming court appearance.
Saakashvii is a controversial political figure, both in his native Georgia and in Ukraine, where he studied and was also active in politics.
He was Georgia’s third president for two consecutive terms, being voted into power in 2004, and leaving office in 2013. Hailed by many as great reformer, his detractors claim he resorted to authoritarian methods and question his achievements.
Saakashvili then relocated to Ukraine. From May 2015 until November of the following year, he was the governor of Odesa Oblast in Ukraine, tasked with cleansing it of corruption, and the founder of the United National Movement Party.
He fell out with the then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko who in July 2017 stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship without giving any official reason. At the time, Ukraine’s migration service issued a statement saying that “according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the president takes decisions on who is stripped of Ukrainian citizenship based on the conclusions of the citizenship committee.”
Meanwhile, Saakashvili stood accused of abuse of power while president in Georgia. Ukrainian legislators confirmed that Saakashviil was in the United States at the time of his citizenship being removed, and that if he returned to Ukraine, he would face extradition to Georgia to face charges for his alleged crimes.
Illegally entering Ukraine in September 2017, he began leading anti-government protests resulting in a cat and mouse scenario with Ukraine’s Security Service.
In February 2018, Saakashvii was deported to Poland, only to return the following year after President Volodymyr Zelensky restored his Ukrainian citizenship.
However, in October 2021, he returned to Georgia after an eight-year absence, calling for his followers to march on the nation’s capital. He was promptly arrested by Georgian police.
Why exactly is he in prison?
Saakashvii had six criminal charges filed against him overall and has so far been convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment for two of them. He was found guilty in absentia over the case of a physical attack on opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili, who was assaulted and severely injured by armed men in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, in 2005.
He was also convicted over his alleged involvement in the infamous murder of Sandro Girgvliani. In both cases, Saakashvii was found guilty of abuse of power.
Other charges against him included the raiding of a TV channel by riot police in 2008, the violent dispersal of anti-government mass protests in 2007, the illegal takeover of the property of a tycoon, and the embezzlement of state funds.
So, what’s forcing him to protest?
Well, in Saakashvii’s own words, written in a letter covered by the press yesterday, Wednesday, Dec. 15: “Today I was denied the most basic right to be present at my own trial. This is a violation of all Georgian and international norms, so I am forced to resort to the extreme form of protest, hunger strike.”
Saakashvii’s main qualm is that, due to his ongoing health problems, he claims he is unable to physically attend the courtroom, so has requested to appear through a video link.
Widespread concerns have been raised in relation to the former president’s health status and treatment. Earlier this month, his legal team claimed that Saakashvili had been “poisoned by metals in prison,” with Georgia’s main opposition party calling for his release, stating that his “condition may lead to coma and death”.
The United National Movement (UNM) called for him to receive treatment at a high-level clinic in either the European Union or United States, yet it is understood that this request has not been actioned.
The UNM said that, since his incarceration, Saakashvili has been suffering from weight loss and muscle pains. The party claimed that a toxicological examination discovered that his body contained high levels of barium, bismuth, and mercury, and that he likely suffered a spinal injury whilst behind bars, along with developing a severe form of traumatic stress disorder.
This is not the first time that he has gone on hunger strike, with his last protest taking place in October 2021.
However, the request, based on his health issues, for Saakashvii to be allowed to attend his hearing via video, has been rejected, with the court citing ‘technical reasons.’
What happens next?
Last week a hearing was adjourned as the judge had granted time to arrange for Saakashvii’s remote presence via video.
Saakashvii’s trial was supposed to begin yesterday, but it was then announced by the Penitentiary Service that a remote appearance was impossible due to technical reasons.
The judge thus postponed the trial upon a request from his lawyers to have their client released due to his poor health.
His lawyer, Dito Sadzaglishvili, told AFP on Wednesday: "Mikheil Saakashvili went on a hunger strike, demanding he be allowed to take part in the court hearings by video link."
Later in the evening, however, Saakashvili called off the hunger strike following an appeal by a group of European Parliament members.
"I have now received a message from the MEPs categorically asking me to stop the hunger strike at this stage", he said in a written message seen by AFP. "The MEPs promise to mobilize all diplomatic efforts to ensure the protection of my minimum rights."
A new date for the hearing has been set for December 22.
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