Georgia on Monday released jailed opposition leader Nika Melia on bail posted by the European Union, in a move that is expected to defuse a political crisis in the Caucasus country.
The country in the far south-east of Europe has been in the throes of a crisis since parliamentary polls last October, which the opposition denounced as rigged.
The release of Melia – the chairman of Georgia’s main opposition force, the United National Movement (UNM) – was part of an agreement signed last month by the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition leaders to put end to the crisis, under the mediation of the President of the European Council. Charles Michel.
Waving Georgian and European flags, hundreds of supporters greeted Melia as he left a prison in the town of Rustavi, some 25 kilometers southeast of the capital Tbilisi.
“I wish the release of all political prisoners in Georgia,” Melia told the crowd.
“We are facing a ruthless opponent,” he said, referring to the ruling party. “Unfortunately, I am not the last political prisoner in Georgia. “
Melia’s lawyer, Dito Sadzaglishvili, told AFP on Monday that Melia’s release was ordered by the Tbilisi city court after the EU agreed to post bail.
The EU announced on Saturday a bond of 11,600 dollars (9,500 euros) to allow the release of Melia, describing it as “an important step taken to end the political crisis in Georgia”.
– Leader of several parties –
Melia, 41, was arrested in February in a violent police raid on her party headquarters, sparking mass protests.
His arrest followed a court order to remand him in custody after refusing to pay increased bail ahead of hearings in a case related to anti-government protests in 2019.
He denounced the case as being politically motivated.
Prime Minister at the time, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned following his government’s plans to detain Melia.
Brussels and Washington led a chorus of international condemnation of Melia’s detention, as fears mounted in the West over Georgia’s perceived retreat on its commitments to democracy.
Melia had united Georgia’s traditionally fractured opposition ahead of the contested October election, emerging as a respected cross-party leader who developed an unprecedented unified opposition front against Georgian Dream’s reign.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream narrowly won the legislative elections in October, with the opposition regularly staging mass protests in the months that followed to demand a new vote.
In March, Michel began cross-party talks which brought the Georgian government and several opposition parties to a deal in April.
The deal commits opposition parties to parliament, while Georgian Dream pledged sweeping political, electoral and judicial reforms.
As part of the pact, the ruling party has pledged to resolve cases of “perceived politicized justice” through amnesties or similar measures within a week – the clause that concerns the criminal case against Melia.
Brussels also offered to post a bond on Melia’s behalf to have him released before the amnesty bill is passed.
– Potential drama to come –
The UNM had resisted joining the April deal brokered by the EU and signed by the ruling party and most opposition parties, saying it would only consider doing so once Melia is released.
The refusal of the UNM and another opposition party, European Georgia, to sign the agreement and end their parliamentary boycott left around 40 seats vacant in the 150-member Georgian legislature.
Exiled Georgian ex-president and founder of the UNM, Mikheil Saakashvili, urged his party to sign the deal despite its “serious shortcomings” and enter parliament after Melia’s release.
But in an announcement expected to add further drama to Georgia’s unpredictable political landscape, the former reformist leader said last month he would return from exile in Ukraine ahead of this year’s local elections.
The pro-Western President of Georgia in 2004-2013, Saakashvili was sentenced in 2018 by a Georgian court to six years in prison for alleged abuse of power, a decision he denounced as politically motivated.
Officials warned that Saakashvili would be arrested if he returned.
His conviction and the accusations leveled against his allies by the Georgian Dream government have drawn criticism from the West over an alleged political witch-hunt.
© 2021 AFP