Georgian Protesters Demand Release of Jailed Opposition Leader

Anti-government protesters demanded the release of Georgia’s main opposition party leader whose detention provoked international condemnation and triggered the resignation of the country’s prime minister.

Several thousands of people marched through the capital, Tbilisi, Friday in support of Nika Melia, head of the United National Movement, who was seized when riot police stormed the party’s headquarters to enforce an arrest order. Some set up tents outside parliament to begin a permanent protest.

The U.S. embassy expressed deep concern at Tuesday’s arrest and the European Union’s envoy to Georgia urged both sides to find common ground. Georgian prosecutors said Melia was taken into pre-trial detention because he refused to post increased bail after he removed a monitoring bracelet during a November rally.

The authorities charge Melia with instigating violence at June 2019 protests against Kremlin influence in Georgia that prompted temporary sanctions from President Vladimir Putin. He says the allegations are politically motivated.

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned last week, saying he feared “polarization and tensions” over the court order to arrest the opposition politician.

Opposition leaders said they plan further rallies over the next two weeks. New Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has defended the detention, while also offering dialogue to the opposition to try to defuse tensions.

The confrontation threatens to deepen a political crisis in the Caucasus nation that has ambitions to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to to escape the influence of Russia, with which it fought a brief 2008 war. Opposition parties are boycotting parliament and demanding fresh elections after a disputed vote in October won by the ruling Georgian Dream party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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