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Thousands Rally In Tbilisi After Opposition Party Leader's Dramatic Arrest


A Georgian opposition supporter holds a national flag during a rally following the arrest of the leader of the opposition ENM party in Tbilisi on February 23.

TBILISI -- Thousands of representatives of different opposition parties and civil rights activists rallied in front of Georgia's government building on February 23, demanding the immediate release of opposition leader Nika Melia after he was detained hours earlier when police stormed his party's offices.

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

In Dramatic Early Morning Raid, Georgian Police Arrest Opposition Leader
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The rally on February 23 started with the playing and singing of Georgia's national anthem. Opposition politicians then outlined their two major demands: Melia's immediate release and early parliamentary elections.

Melia, the leader of the major opposition party in the South Caucasus nation -- the United National Movement (ENM) -- was arrested in a dawn raid at the party's headquarters in Tbilisi over allegations that he incited violence at protests nearly two years ago.

Georgian law enforcement officers detain opposition leader Nika Melia after storming his party's offices in Tbilisi early on February 23.
Georgian law enforcement officers detain opposition leader Nika Melia after storming his party's offices in Tbilisi early on February 23.

More than a dozen people were injured as law enforcement raided the premises, 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.

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

The group also noted what it called "the use of excessive force and indiscriminate tactics against demonstrators -- most of them peaceful" in the 2019 events at the center of the accusations against Melia.

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.

Melia has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he has dismissed as politically motivated.

A Tbilisi court last week ordered that he be taken into custody for allegedly failing to post bail. The Interior Ministry at the time announced it was delaying carrying out the order to detain Melia following the Gakharia's resignation.

Live television footage showed Melia being dragged from the party headquarters to be placed in pre-trial detention.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi expressed concerns over Melia's arrest, saying "We regret that the call of the United States and other international partners for restraint and dialogue was ignored."

"We are dismayed by the polarizing rhetoric from Georgia’s leadership at a time of crisis. Force and aggression are not the solution to resolving Georgia’s political differences. Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations," an embassy statement said.

British ambassador Mark Clayton wrote on Twitter that he was "shocked" by the scenes at the party's headquarters.

"Violence and chaos in Tbilisi are the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all sides to act with restraint, now and in the coming days," he added.

Georgian Police Storm Opposition Party Headquarters, Arrest Leader
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Melia's arrest came a day after parliament approved a new government led by Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.

Gharibashvili and his proposed cabinet were supported by 89 deputies with two opposed in the 150-member parliament, where the ENM and smaller parties are boycotting proceedings.

With reporting by Reuters, Apsny, OC Media, Interpressnews, and AFP