On the eve of nationwide local elections, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been arrested after returning to Georgia on October 1 from nearly eight years of self-exile abroad.
He was incarcerated in connection with a 9-year prison sentence, issued in absentia in 2018, for alleged abuse of power and organizing violence against an opposition parliamentarian.
The ex-president, who ruled from 2004 to 2013, is the first former Georgian head of state to be imprisoned within Georgia. The government states that Saakashvili is located in Rustavi Penitentiary No. 12, about a 30-minute drive south of the capital, Tbilisi.
After meeting with Saakashvili in prison on the evening of October 1, Georgian human rights ombudswoman Nino Lomjaria told reporters that he has declared a hunger strike since he considers himself a political prisoner. Lomjaria said he was meeting with doctors when she arrived at the Rustavi prison.
She stated that Saakashvili did not complain about ill treatment or violence by police, to whom he had surrendered without resistance. He told Lomjaria that he had been taken under custody in a Tbilisi residence and was alone when the police arrived.
Saakashvili, a Ukrainian citizen, also has requested access to the Ukrainian consul in Georgia, the ombudswoman said.
Video footage posted online by the Georgian Interior Ministry on the evening of October 1 showed two police officers escorting a smiling, handcuffed Saakashvili up a ramp into a "penitentiary institution," presumably Rustavi Penitentiary No. 12.
In a video filmed before his arrest, the 53-year-old politician, who no longer holds Georgian citizenship, predicted that he could be arrested in Tbilisi, but urged his supporters “not to be afraid of anything.”
“Tomorrow, go to the elections, cast your vote, and, on [October] 3, everyone will celebrate the victory together. I am very strong, very resilient, and I came here to help you. We don’t have another solution.”
In an appeal for voters to back "constitutional order and a peaceful future" rather than street protests, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who served as foreign minister under Saakashvili from 2004 until 2005, underlined that "No one should play with this fire, if he or she worries about the country and its future," the Interpressnews agency reported.
Opposition members, including the formerly Saakashvili-led United National Movement party, view the October 2 vote for local government representatives as a “referendum” on the ruling Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012.
With Saakashvili now in custody, the government has focused on appearing strong and organized ahead of the October 2 vote.
At a special briefing, Prime Minister Gharibashvili claimed that the Georgian government had received advance information about Saakashvili’s departure from Ukraine for Georgia, and that the “process was under [the government’s] complete control,” Interpressnews reported. Since 2020, Saakashvili has worked as the head of the executive council of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s National Reforms Council.
Flanked by Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri and State Security Service Director Grigol Liluashvili, Gharibashvili claimed that law enforcement forces chose the time and place of the ex-president’s arrest to minimize the chances for obstruction. Terming Saakashvili “a criminal,” he did not elaborate.
This statement, however, contradicts an earlier denial from the Georgian Interior Ministry that Saakashvili had entered Georgian territory. Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandre Darakhvelidze claimed that the ministry had received this information from “the Ukrainian side,” RFE/RL’s Ekho Kavkaza reported.
Early on October 1, Saakashvili posted a message on Facebook indicating that he had returned to Georgia, followed by two videos allegedly shot in the Black Sea port city of Batumi.
Senior members of the Georgian Dream had insisted that the videos were fakes, but without further substantiation.
The prime minister earlier had stated that Saakashvili would be arrested immediately upon arrival in Georgia.
Aside from a prison sentence, the former president faces investigations into the misappropriation of public funds and an abuse of authority in a violent crackdown on a 2007 demonstration and the subsequent use of riot police to take over the privately run TV station Imedi.
Saakashvili has rejected all these charges as politicized. “I will fight until the end,” he said on October 1, Georgian media reported.