Georgian police have arrested dozens of opposition supporters who rallied outside the court where ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili faced trial on abuse of office charges which he has denounced as politically motivated.
It was Saakashvili’s first courtroom appearance since the Caucasus country’s top opposition leader was arrested on October 1 shortly after his return from exile. Georgia’s president during 2004-13, Saakashvili had refused food for 50 days to protest his prosecution.
On Monday, Saakashvili was seen sitting in a glass box in the courtroom, according to a short mobile phone video broadcast by independent Pirveli TV station, as more than 1,000 supporters rallied outside the court, waving Georgian and European Union flags and chanting his name.
“I do not recognise the Prosecutor’s Office and the Georgian judiciary, I am not here to be part of a pre-written comedy,” Saakashvili said before the trial began, according to Georgia’s IPN news agency.
Police arrested several dozen demonstrators after they blocked traffic at a nearby street, pro-opposition Mtavari TV said.
Saakashvili called off the hunger strike when he was moved to a military hospital on November 20 after doctors warned he could soon die.
The Georgian authorities initially banned him from attending the trial, but later reversed the decision after the US Department of State demanded Saakashvili’s right to a fair trial be respected.
“I am not afraid of appearing before a just court and to defend my truth before the Georgian people,” Saakashvili said on Facebook last week, but added that he believed there was “zero chance” that he will see justice “in this court”.
In 2018, Saakashvili was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison on two counts of abuse of office and is facing two more trials on similar charges.
He has insisted all the charges against him are politically motivated.
Monday’s trial concerns Saakashvili’s alleged role in a violent police crackdown on an opposition protest in 2007.
Saakashvili at the time admitted that police used excessive force against protesters, resigned and called snap presidential polls, which he subsequently won.
His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili told the AFP news agency that Saakashvili “had no role whatsoever in ordering and planning the police operation”.
“Prosecutors have failed to present any evidence of Saakashvili’s wrongdoing.”
‘An extraordinary tale’
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Tbilisi, said the background of the trial was “really quite an extraordinary tale”.
“Mikheil Saakashvili was in exile for eight years, having left the country after he handed over the reins of power to the current administration. They then went after him and charged him with all of these charges while he was in exile,” he said.
“But suddenly he turned up in Georgia, smuggled himself into the country on the eve of local elections on October 1. He was promptly arrested and then for the past six weeks went on hunger strike. It was a huge controversy on how to treat Mikheil Saakashvili.”
Forestier-Walker added that an “independent panel of doctors said he had to be moved to a hospital. He was getting sicker and sicker because of his hunger strike. Finally, the government relented after the European Court of Human Rights intervened.”
“He is now being treated in a military hospital, he ended his hunger strike and here we are today finally with him making an appearance in court,” he concluded.
Amnesty International has condemned Saakashvili’s treatment and branded it “not just selective justice but apparent political revenge”.
Critics have accused the Georgian government of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.