Georgian police stormed the offices of opposition leader Nika Melia’s party and detained him days after the prime minister’s resignation after a disagreement over whether to detain the prominent politician.
Live television footage showed Melia, the leader of the United National Movement (UNM), the country’s main opposition party, was dragged from his party headquarters to be remanded in custody early Tuesday.
Hundreds of riot police used tear gas against his supporters camping in the building, footage broadcast by Mtavari TV showed. Dozens of opposition supporters have been arrested.
Images from inside the UNM offices released by Sputnik Georgia outlet showed Melia barricaded in a room with some of her supporters, as opposition activists clashed with police in the street.
A court in Tbilisi ruled last week to place Melia – who is accused of organizing “mass violence” during anti-government protests in 2019 – in pretrial detention.
“We call on both representatives of political parties and their supporters to demonstrate peacefully to refrain from any violent action and not to interfere with the court’s decision,” Sputnik Georgia said, citing the Interior Ministry, referring ordered to detain Melia. .
The ministry added in a statement that “the police used proportional force and special means” in the police operation.
‘A Georgian people who love freedom’
Georgia has been in the throes of a political crisis since the parliamentary elections last October, which opposition parties denounced as rigged.
“In no case can they prevent the freedom-loving Georgian people from demonstrating… It is the end of the regime. They will not maintain power with the support of these powerful special forces, ”Melia said.
Former Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who resigned last week following the court ruling, said the arrest of the opposition leader could lead to a further escalation of the political crisis and threaten the well-being of citizens of the country.
News of Melia’s detention plan sparked outrage from the opposition and warnings from Western allies in the former Soviet country.
“Shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning,” British Ambassador Mark Clayton wrote on Twitter. “Violence and chaos in Tbilisi is the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all parties to act with restraint, now and in the days to come. “
Shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning. Violence and chaos in Tbilisi is the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all parties to act with restraint, now and in the days to come. @UKinGeorgia
– Mark Clayton (@MarkClaytonFCDO) February 23, 2021
Following Gakharia’s resignation, the opposition called for snap parliamentary polls.
Last week, the United States and the European Union called on the Georgian government to resolve the crisis peacefully and ensure that its justice system remains free from political bias.
Melia, 41, dismissed charges against him for “organizing mass violence” during anti-government protests in 2019 as politically motivated.
In power since 2012, the Georgian Dream Party has seen its popularity decline due to its inability to cope with economic stagnation and a perceived decline in commitments to democracy.
Melia’s detention order raised the issues of the contested election crisis. Opposition members refused to take their seats in the new parliament in a boycott that weighs heavily on the political legitimacy of the ruling party.
New Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who was confirmed by parliament on Monday, told lawmakers his government will arrest Melia, saying the politician “will not be able to hide from justice” .
Garibashvili is a staunch lieutenant of the powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili who is widely regarded as responsible in Georgia, although he has no official political role.
Analysts have said the spiraling political crisis in Georgia carries serious consequences for the fledgling democracy and is unlikely to be resolved without greater diplomatic engagement from Tbilisi’s Western allies.
Matthew Bryza, senior researcher at US think tank The Atlantic Council, said Georgia’s “backward democracy movement” under Georgian Dream has reached a point where “opposition parties say they can’t not take their seats in parliament because the democratic system in Georgia is broken ”.
“Without greater Western mediation, the situation could become very dangerous,” said the former diplomat who coordinated American policy in the Caucasus in the administration of former President George W. Bush.