Ten Georgian opposition activists detained for their participation in the protest demonstrations launched in April to force President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign have been released from pretrial detention following a landmark meeting on August 12 between the leaders of several Georgian extraparliamentary opposition parties and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
The charges against them of possession of drugs or illegal weapons, which the opposition leaders have denounced
as fabricated, have not, however, been dropped, and some 38 other oppositionists remain in pretrial detention.
The Georgian opposition has long regarded the Interior Ministry as above and beyond the law, and Merabishvili personally as exercising a greater, and possibly more pernicious influence on Saakashvili than does any other senior official. Indeed, Merabishvili's resignation, together with that of Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili and sweeping changes to ensure the "political impartiality" of the law enforcement agencies, were among six demands the opposition presented
to Saakashvili in mid-May.
Last week's meeting between Merabishvili and the opposition leaders resulted from an invitation Saakashvili extended to the opposition on July 20 to attend sessions of the National Security Council. Three prominent opposition figures -- Irakli Alasania (Alliance for Georgia), Konstantine Gamsakhurdia (Tavisupleba) and Zurab Tkemaladze (Industrialists Party) accepted that invitation, and Saakashvili offered
at a Security Council session on August 7 to arrange the meeting with Merabishvili to discuss the plight of the detained opposition activists.
Even though Saakashvili's offer was addressed to the opposition in general, several prominent opposition leaders either rejected it outright or expressed skepticism. Eka Beselia of the Movement for A United Georgia told RFE/RL's Georgian Service
on August 11 that she saw little indication that the authorities regarded the planned meeting as anything more than a PR exercise.
Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (Democratic Movement -- Free Georgia) similarly declined the invitation.
At the August 12 meeting, which both sides subsequently characterized as "productive," the Interior Ministry agreed to respond within one week to the opposition's request for the release of the 48 detained activists. Agreement was also reached on remaining in constant contact around the clock to discuss any further detentions or arrests that the opposition has reason to believe were politically motivated.
Zurab Abashidze (Our Georgia-Free Democrats) said on August 19 that the release of the 10 oppositionists gives grounds for "moderate optimism." He downplayed the authorities' flat denial that there are any political prisoners in Georgia, arguing that it is more important to continue to campaign for the release of the remaining detained activists.
In an extensive interview posted by kavkaz-uzel.ru
on August 13, outgoing Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, who was present at the August 12 meeting with Merabishvili, estimated the number of political prisoners in Georgia at between 30-40.