Tens of thousands of people gathered in Georgia on Monday to demand the release of jailed opposition leader and former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been on hunger strike for weeks, as Ukraine criticized his transfer to a prison hospital.
Saakashvili, who served as president between 2004 and 2013, was arrested on October 1 on his return to Ukraine.
He has refused food for 39 days to protest his imprisonment, which he says is politically motivated.
His imprisonment has exacerbated a political crisis that erupted last year after the opposition denounced fraud in parliamentary elections.
The arrest of the pro-Western reformer provoked the largest anti-government demonstrations in a decade.
Hailing Saakashvili’s name, some 40,000 demonstrators flooded Central Liberty Square in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Monday night.
Earlier Monday, Saakashvili was transferred to a prison hospital, which, according to human rights officials, fails to provide proper treatment.
“A massive, permanent protest movement begins in Georgia and will not stop until Mikheil Saakashvili is released and early elections called,” Nika Melia, leader of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, told the crowd.
“We will not disperse, our protest will be ruthless and peaceful, we will not allow the regime to provoke us into a civil confrontation.
Protesters then marched through the center of Tbilisi to the prime minister’s office, vowing to block the building.
“Garibashvili will not be able to leave or enter his office,” Melia said.
One of the demonstrators, businessman Niko Mgeladze, 46, said: “Saakashvili is a victim of political revenge, we will not stop until he is released.”
The pro-opposition Mtavari television station broadcast footage of hundreds of police officers being stationed outside government buildings.
The Georgian Department of Prisons said Saakashvili was transferred to a prison hospital “to prevent his health from deteriorating.”
On Monday morning, doctors who examined Saakashvili said he was “at high risk of multi-systemic complications and should be treated urgently in a high-tech clinic.”
Georgia’s human rights lawyer Nino Lomjaria said the prison hospital did not meet the doctors’ criteria.
Saakashvili said the move was a death sentence.
“When the Georgian parliament abolished the death penalty on my own initiative (in 1998), I could not have imagined that years later I would be sentenced to death in Georgia,” he said in a statement.
Doctors have said Saakashvili faces an immediate risk of death as he has a blood disorder that makes his hunger strike particularly dangerous.
Ukraine has protested against Saakashvili’s transfer to a prison hospital, saying the move “creates additional risks”.
“We call on the Georgian side to transfer Mikheil Saakashvili to a civilian medical institution without delay,” the foreign ministry said in a note of protest sent to Tbilisi.
Saakashvili, whose Georgian passport was revoked in 2015, is now a Ukrainian citizen, where he ran – until his arrest – a government agency leading the reforms.
Saakashvili’s lawyers have expressed concern that “his safety will not be guaranteed in the prison hospital where convicted criminals are employed as assistant doctors.”
Independent television channel Pirveli reported that inmates at the prison hospital staged a loud protest against Saakashvili, shouting insults at the man who ran a ruthless campaign against organized crime during his tenure as president.
Lomjaria, who visited Saakashvili in custody, said he was transferred to a prison hospital against his will and was tricked into transferring to a civilian clinic.
Saakashvili reported that prison guards “used force” against him during the transfer, Lomjaria told reporters.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili caused a stir recently by saying that Saakashvili “has the right to commit suicide” and that the government was forced to arrest him because he refused to leave politics.
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