By David Chkhikvishvili
TBILISI (Reuters) -Georgian police on Friday arrested ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia after the opposition politician returned to the country despite facing imprisonment and called for post-election street protests this weekend.
Saakashvili, who had been living in Ukraine and was sentenced in absentia in Georgia in 2018, announced this week he would fly home for Saturday’s local elections in order to help “save the country”.
On Friday, he said on social media that he had secretly returned to Georgia and told his supporters to vote for the opposition and to rally in the heart of the capital Tbilisi afterwards on Sunday.
The government initially denied he had returned, but Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced late on Friday that Saakashvili had been detained and handed over to a detention facility, the TASS news agency reported.
He was shown in handcuffs grinning broadly and being led away by two police officers in footage aired on Georgian television. A rights ombudswoman who visited him in custody later said he had declared a hunger strike and demanded to see a Ukrainian consul.
Garibashvili had warned that the 53-year-old would be arrested if he returned. Saakashvili was convicted in absentia of abuse of power and covering up evidence in two court cases in 2018 that he has called politically motivated.
Saakashvili’s lawyer denounced his arrest on Friday as a “political detention”, Interfax Ukraine reported.
Saakashvili told supporters in a pre-recorded Facebook video: “In all likelihood, I’m being arrested now in Tbilisi, but I want to tell you, I’m not afraid. Go to the elections tomorrow, vote and we’ll celebrate victory on (Sunday).”
The local elections in the country of less than four million people feature an array of votes including one for the mayor of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The votes come amid a standoff between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement founded by Saakashvili and a political crisis that began at last year’s parliament election which the opposition said was rigged.
International observers said at the time the election had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms had generally been respected.
There were no immediate signs of protests after his arrest. But the United National Movement party told supporters to focus on the vote and that it would announce its further plans on Saturday.
The party chief, Nika Melia, accused the government of making Saakashvili a “refugee” and said he had known the risks of returning home.
Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 that culminated in the resignation of long-time President Eduard Shevardnadze, posted a video early on Friday from what he said was the Georgian city of Batumi on the Black Sea.
He called on his supporters to vote for United National Movement or for any small party that opposes Georgian Dream.
“Everyone must go to the polls and vote, and on Oct. 3 we must fill Freedom Square. If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us,” he posted in the video.
“You see – I risked everything – my life, freedom, everything, in order to come here. I want only one thing from you – go to the polls,” he said.
President Salome Zourabichvili said she would not pardon Saakashvili, TASS news agency reported.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it had summoned the Georgian ambassador after his detention.
(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean and Sandra Maler)