TBILISI: Georgia's jailed opposition leader and ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili arrives in the defendant's box for a hearing at the city court of Tbilisi yesterday. - AFP

TBILISI: Georgia's jailed opposition leader and ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili denounced yesterday his "politically motivated" prosecution and ill-treatment in prison as he went on trial on abuse of office charges. It was his first public appearance since he was arrested on October 1 shortly after his return from exile. Georgia's president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili had refused food for 50 days to protest against his prosecution.

"Everyone knows I must not be in jail because all the charges against me are trumped-up and politically motivated," Saakashvili said, addressing the judges from a glass box in the Tbilisi City Court. At one point during his emotional speech in the courtroom, he switched to English to make a statement "for Georgia's international partners". "I was tortured, I was treated inhumanely, beaten up, and humiliated" in custody, said Saakashvili. He lost about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) during his hunger strike, and yesterday the 53-year-old looked pale.

He also admitted making "more than enough mistakes" during his nine years in power. "I very much regret numerous mistakes, first of all that we have failed to build independent judiciary. I apologize to everyone who has suffered as a result," he said. More than 1,000 Saakashvili supporters rallied outside the court in the capital, waving Georgian and EU flags and chanting his name. Police arrested several dozen demonstrators after they blocked traffic at a nearby street, pro-opposition Mtavari TV said.

Saakashvili called off the hunger strike when he was moved to a military hospital on November 20 after doctors warned he could soon die. The Georgian authorities initially banned him from attending the trial but then reversed the decision, after the US Department of State demanded his right to a fair trial be respected. In 2018, Saakashvili was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison on two counts of abuse of office and is facing two more trials on similar charges.

Yesterday's trial concerns Saakashvili's alleged role in a violent police crackdown on an opposition protest in 2007 that was reportedly masterminded by a Kremlin-backed oligarch in order to derail Georgia's bid to join NATO. Saakashvili at the time admitted that police used excessive force against protesters, resigned and called snap presidential polls, which he subsequently won. He told the judges yesterday that he "did not give any instructions to anyone" to carry out the police operation.

'Political revenge'

His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili told AFP that Saakashvili "had no role whatsoever in ordering and planning the police operation". "Prosecutors have failed to present any evidence of Saakashvili's wrongdoing," he said. Last week, Saakashvili said on Facebook that he believed there was "zero chance" that he would see justice "in this court". The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims has condemned Saakashvili's treatment in prison, while Georgian rights groups said he was "subjected to psychological torture in custody".

Amnesty International has branded Saakashvili's treatment "not just selective justice but apparent political revenge". Speaking in court, Saakashvili also thanked Georgians for their "support and solidarity" and called for a "peaceful mobilisation" to end the rule of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. Georgia's richest man, Ivanishvili is widely believed to be calling the shots in the country, despite having no official political role.

Saakashvili's arrest exacerbated a political crisis stemming from parliamentary polls last year that the opposition denounced as fraudulent. It has also spurred the largest anti-government protests in a decade. Critics have accused the Georgian Dream government of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili sparked an uproar recently when he said the government had been forced to arrest Saakashvili because he refused to quit politics. - AFP