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Dozens of officials call for release of former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili

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Dozens of former and current European elected officials joined numerous public figures on Monday to call for the release of the jailed former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, citing a “pattern of political prosecution” and the risk of a deepening political crisis in the country.

The officials, including former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, issued their request in an open letter to EU leaders — European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Parliament President David Sassoli.

But while the letter urged Saakashvili’s release, it did not specifically call on the EU presidents to do anything — a recognition that there is effectively no step they can take on his behalf other than perhaps to pressure current Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili to issue a pardon, a step she has vowed “never” to take. The letter asked for “some element of international observation” of Saakashvili’s situation, but did not say this should come from the EU.

In 2018, Saakashvili was convicted in absentia in Georgia on charges of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison. Internationally, the charges were widely viewed as politically motivated, and the legal cases against him were regarded as political retribution, including from leaders of the governing Georgian Dream party.

Saakashvili has denied wrongdoing and denounced the legal action against him, but some Georgian Dream officials have insisted the prosecutors and courts acted independently and justifiably to hold him accountable for past crimes.

Saakashvili, who served as president from 2004 to 2013, left Georgia in 2014 and went into self-exile, splitting his time mostly between the U.S., Ukraine and the Netherlands. He forfeited his Georgian citizenship in 2015 when he became a Ukrainian citizen, later serving briefly as governor of the Odessa region, an appointed position. In 2017, though, Saakashvili was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship by then-President Petro Poroshenko, who had named him to the Odessa post. Two years later, Poroshenko’s successor, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, restored Saakashvili’s citizenship.

Saakashvili returned to Georgia on October 1, just ahead of municipal elections in the country, apparently in an effort to rally support for his own party, United National Movement (UNM) and potentially undercut Georgian Dream. Even some of his closest former colleagues and associates were unaware of his plan to return. The Georgian government initially denied he was in the country, but then announced he had been arrested.

“The charges are known to be politically motivated,” the current and former officials, including many members of the European Parliament, wrote in the open letter to the EU presidents. “Saakashvili was one of dozens of former officials tried and convicted by their successors. Despite his conviction, the charges were never internationally recognized, and no one moved to detain or extradite him as he continued to work and travel abroad, because these charges were known to be part of an established pattern of political persecution.”

Zelenskiy has called on Georgia to return Saakashvili to Ukraine.

In the letter, the officials credited Saakashvili with helping to transition Georgia from its legacy as a Soviet republic to a modern, if still developing, democracy.

“Then-President Mikheil Saakashvili played a significant role in setting a regional precedent: he oversaw a free and fair election that handed his own party an electoral defeat and handed power to the new government in a peaceful, democratic transfer of power,” they wrote.

Michel, the European Council president, asserted an unusual role in Georgian politics earlier this year, helping to broker an agreement intended to defuse a deepening political crisis, in which some opposition members of Parliament had refused to take their seats after elections last year.

The agreement included a provision setting a minimum threshold of 43 percent support for Georgian Dream in the local elections. If the party had fallen below that mark, it would have triggered a snap national election. Georgian Dream later repudiated the agreement, but ultimately won more than 46 percent in the election. Some analysts said Saakashvili’s return may have helped UNM force runoffs in some districts, but that he also may have rallied opponents helping to lift Georgian Dream above the 43 percent mark.

Second-round votes will be held in some 20 districts, including mayoral races in the capital, Tbilisi, and the major cities of Batumi and Kutaisi.

Monday’s open letter called for Saakashvili’s imprisonment to be “suspended” pending further proceedings, including an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but there does not seem to be any legal mechanism to accomplish that.

“With no public trust in the justice system in Georgia, some element of international observation must be put in place to help calm tensions as this process moves ahead,” the officials wrote. “The era of politically motivated justice should finally end in Georgia.”

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