TBILISI -- A Georgian court has ruled to place the head of the country's main opposition force in pretrial detention in a case denounced by the opposition as a political witch hunt.
The Tbilisi City Court on February 17 granted the prosecution's request to send Nika Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (ENM), into custody.
Leaders of opposition parties and Melia's supporters gathered at the ENM's headquarters in Tbilisi, vowing to obstruct police if they move to enforce the court's ruling.
The U.S. Embassy called on the Georgian authorities and the opposition to "exercise maximum restraint in the wake of tonight's ruling."
"Violence serves no one except those who want to undermine Georgia's stability. This must be resolved peacefully," it tweeted.
Melia is accused of organizing "mass violence" during 2019 anti-government protests, a charge he rejects as politically motivated. The ruling Georgian Dream party denies that.
The 41-year-old politician faces up to nine years behind bars if convicted.
The court ruling came amid a political crisis in Georgia that followed parliamentary elections in October 2020 that independent monitors say were marred by irregularities. All the opposition parties are boycotting parliament, refusing to assume their mandates.
Ahead of the court decision, the European Union envoy to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, described the circumstances surrounding Melia's prosecution as a "dangerous trajectory for Georgia and for Georgian democracy."
Hartzell said the case will definitely have a "wider impact" on the political landscape and further developments in the country.
On February 16, parliament voted to suspend Melia's immunity from prosecution, paving the way for his pretrial detention.
The prosecution's motion followed his refusal to pay an increased bail fee of 40,000 laris ($12,000). The opposition leader initially posted bail in 2019 but the amount was increased after he publicly removed his electronic monitoring bracelet during a postelection rally in November 2020.