TBILISI -- Dozens of European lawmakers and other current and former politicians -- including former presidents of Latvia and Ukraine -- have called for the release of jailed Georgian ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose detention earlier this month deepened a protracted political crisis in the South Caucasus country.
"Saakashvili's imprisonment should be suspended until he faces trial, in fair judicial proceedings" in order to "ensure the recovery of Georgia’s democracy from the current political crisis," according to a joint open letter dated October 18 and addressed to the presidents of the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament.
Citing "no public trust in the justice system in Georgia," the letter calls for an end to "the era of politically motivated justice" in the country.
The signatories include Latvia's former president, Valdis Zatlers, and Viktor Yushchenko, ex-president of Ukraine, as well as almost 70 current and former politicians, including two dozen members of the 705-strong European Parliament -- most of them members of the EU assembly's European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
The joint call comes on the 18th day of a hunger strike that Saakashvili declared following his arrest on October 1, which occurred hours after he announced he had returned to Georgia following an eight-year absence and triggered a protest by thousands of his supporters in Tbilisi last week.
The 53-year-old Saakashvili was convicted in absentia in 2018 and had lived in Ukraine in recent years.
Last month, he 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 the ruling Georgian Dream were rigged.
In this month's vote, Georgia's main opposition force -- the United National Movement (ENM) that Saakashvili founded -- was out-polled decisively by Georgian Dream. However, runoffs are scheduled for October 30 in Tbilisi and other key cities.
Saakashvili says he will continue his hunger strike until runoff elections are held, while his doctor calls for a medical commission to urgently evaluate his deteriorating health.
In their letter, the European politicians said the charges against Saakashvili "were known to be part of an established pattern of political persecution" that has targeted "dozens of former officials tried and convicted by their successors."
They said the arrest of the former president "serves only to deepen the political crisis" that Georgia is facing following "years of extreme polarization that have resulted from attempts to control the free press; to intimidate and surveil journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and even foreign diplomats; and to limit the space and resources for political opposition to the government."
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.