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U.S. Lawmakers Call For Release Of Georgian Opposition Party Leader

In Dramatic Early Morning Raid, Georgian Police Arrest Opposition Leader
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WATCH: In Dramatic Early Morning Raid, Georgian Police Arrest Opposition Leader

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers said a raid on the headquarters of a major opposition party in Georgia and the arrest of the party’s leader was “profoundly troubling” and called for his immediate release, along with all other political prisoners.

Two senators and two members of the House of Representatives issued a statement on February 23 after Nika Melia, the leader of the major opposition party in the South Caucasus nation -- the United National Movement (ENM) -- was detained when police stormed his party's offices in a dawn raid.

“The Georgian government’s decision to violently raid the United National Movement headquarters to arrest its leader, Nika Melia, and dozens of activists is profoundly troubling,” the statement said. “The corrupt use of Georgia’s law enforcement and judiciary to execute politically motivated actions jeopardizes what remains of Georgia’s democracy and its Euro-Atlantic path.”

Nika Melia, head of the United National Movement, speaks to a journalist in Tbilisi on February 18.
Nika Melia, head of the United National Movement, speaks to a journalist in Tbilisi on February 18.

The statement was released by Senator Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation; and representatives Adam Kinzinger (Republican-Illinois) and Gerry Connolly (Democrat-Virginia), co-chairs of the House Georgia Caucus.

They called for the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Melia and Giorgi Rurua, adding that all political parties in Georgia “must cease provocations and negotiate a peaceful resolution to this crisis.”

More than a dozen people were injured as law enforcement raided the ENM headquarters, spraying what appeared to be chemical irritants into the offices where party leaders, as well as representatives of other opposition parties, had been shielding Melia for several days.

Melia was arrested over allegations that he incited violence at protests nearly two years ago. He has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

International rights group Amnesty International called the heavy use of force to take Melia into custody before a court has heard his appeal a troubling indicator.

"Arresting him, let alone violently, before the appeal has been considered shows the Georgian authorities’ flagrant disregard for the rule of law and authority and integrity of the judiciary, and suggests the arrest is politically motivated," Amnesty said in a statement.

Melia's arrest came days after Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned following a disagreement over whether to take the prominent politician into custody. Gakharia had said that Melia's arrest was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions in the Caucasus country of 3.7 million people.

The political scene in Georgia has been on the brink of crisis since October elections dominated by the Georgian Dream party but which independent monitors say were marred by irregularities.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Reuters, Apsny, OC Media, Interpressnews, and AFP
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