TBILISI -- Thousands of people have gathered in the center of the Georgian capital demanding the release of jailed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose detention earlier this month deepened a protracted political crisis in the South Caucasus country.
Shouting slogans such as “Free Misha” and waving national flags, the protesters filled Tbilisi’s Freedom Square and the city’s main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, in the evening of October 14.
Busloads of riot police were deployed outside the parliament building ahead of the demonstration, according to footage aired on television.
The 53-year-old Saakashvili declared a hunger strike following his arrest on October 1 and incarceration in the city of Rustavi, hours after he announced he had returned to Georgia following an eight-year absence.
Saakashvili was convicted in absentia in 2018 and had lived in Ukraine in recent years.
In an address read out by his lawyer Nika Gvaramia to the protesters, Saakashvili said he had come back to Georgia to “contribute to the struggle of the Georgian people against poverty, corruption, injustice, destruction.”
He also called for the government linked to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, to be "defeated" and for Georgia to return to its pro-Western path.
Ahead of the demonstration, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told journalists that "inmate Saakashvili's sole goal is to stir up destabilisation and upheaval in the country."
The rally ended without reported incident after the participants sang the Georgian national anthem on Freedom Square.
Last month, Saakashvili announced plans to fly home for the October 2 nationwide local elections despite facing prison, claiming he wanted to help "save the country," amid political turmoil triggered last year after opposition parties said elections won by Georgian Dream were rigged.
In this month's vote, Georgia's main opposition force -- the United National Movement (ENM) that Saakashvili founded -- was outpolled decisively by Georgian Dream.
However, the party's mayoral candidates failed to surpass the required 50 percent threshold in the key cities of Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Poti, and Rustavi and runoffs are scheduled for October 30.
Georgia's president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was sentenced in 2018 to a total of nine years in prison in absentia after being convicted of abuse of power in two separate cases. The ex-president has rejected all charges as politically motivated.
Saakashvili's doctor, Nikoloz Kipshidze, said on October 10 he needed to be transferred to hospital as his condition was worsening.
The Justice Ministry later said that Saakashvili’s “health condition is satisfactory.”