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Medical Mission To Examine Georgia's Incarcerated Saakashvili Mired In Smuggling Accusations

In a July 3 court hearing, which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili attended by video link, he was notably emaciated.
In a July 3 court hearing, which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili attended by video link, he was notably emaciated.

TBILISI -- An international medical mission to examine imprisoned former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has become bogged down in controversy after video emerged depicting one of the doctors -- the government claims -- trying to sneak out medical samples from the ex-leader.

The product of months of negotiations, the Polish mission was supposed to provide an independent assessment of Saakashvili's health and treatment while being incarcerated after more than a year of bitter mutual accusations between the government and the former president's team. Instead, it has only added more questions.

Saakashvili has been in custody in various Georgian penitentiary facilities since October 2021, serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, charges which he and his supporters say are politically motivated. Since his health has declined, he has spent time in a military hospital and since May 2022 has been receiving treatment at a private clinic in the capital, Tbilisi. Saakashvili is currently being tried on additional charges of violently dispersing a 2007 anti-government rally as well as new illegal border-crossing charges.

The visit of the Polish doctors, which was at the request of the Polish prime minister, finally began on July 12, with both the government and Saakashvili's team blaming the other for the delay. Little concrete has been reported about their mission so far, and they have yet to announce any preliminary conclusions.

On July 14, though, Georgia's Special Penitentiary Service posted a video of the alleged smuggling incident. It depicts one man taking off his shoe and removing a small, unidentified white object from it. There are three other men in the room, one of whom is filming with a phone.

According to the penitentiary service, the man taking off his shoe was one of the Polish doctors, and the object he removed from his shoe was "biological material" from Saakashvili, wrapped in paper. The doctor was trying to "sneak out" the material despite having received permission to take samples openly, the service said.

"It should be noted that they were officially allowed to take out a sample by the [penitentiary service], so this action further indicates the doctor's behavior is not in accordance with medical ethics and legal standards," the penitentiary service said in its statement.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry summoned Poland's acting ambassador, Mariusz Pietrzak; in a statement, the ministry said the incident "causes misunderstanding, concern, and also brings the entire process into disrepute."

For five days following the publication of the video, Polish officials refrained from commenting on the issue, leaving Georgian sources to speak for them. According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry statement, Pietrzak said "he was not informed about the reasons behind the behavior of the Polish medical professional." The clinical director of the VivaMed clinic, where Saakashvili is being treated, told local media that the doctor said that "he has a habit of keeping everything in his shoes. Everyone has their own habits."

On July 19, the Polish Embassy in Tbilisi finally issued a statement. It said the episode was an "unintentional incident." It complained that the release of the video, "as well as emotional statements issued by representatives of Georgian state bodies, contradict the principles of good cooperation."

In custody, Saakashvili has undertaken several hunger strikes and his health has visibly deteriorated. He has said his weight has plummeted from 120 kilograms to 64 kilograms. His claims of being mistreated have resonated among his many political allies, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Moldovan President Maia Sandu.

The question of Saakashvili's treatment in custody has been the subject of acrimonious partisan debates in Georgia; the former president and the leadership of the current ruling Georgian Dream party are bitter enemies. The latest chapter in the drama has only deepened the dispute, providing fodder for both sides.

For the Georgian Dream party and its supporters, who argue that Saakashvili is exaggerating his declining health while in custody, the seeming subterfuge suggested a plot by the former president's team to manipulate the results. "Very likely they wanted to falsify some of the evidence," said Kakha Kaladze, the party's general secretary and the mayor of Tbilisi. "Probably they were going to organize some kind of campaign around this later."

"Imagine that the justice system did not release video evidence and that the penitentiary service officials did not reveal the Polish doctor's fraud," added Greta Tsitsava, a Georgian Dream member of parliament, writing on social media. "Very soon we would have the conclusion from one of the leading clinics/experts that Saakashvili was poisoned."

Supporters march in support of Saakashvili near the clinic where he has been receiving medical treatment in Tbilisi on June 3.
Supporters march in support of Saakashvili near the clinic where he has been receiving medical treatment in Tbilisi on June 3.

Opposition figures, meanwhile, have been arguing that the government continues to deliberately maltreat Saakashvili. A Georgian independent ombudsman that oversees human rights and freedoms expressed concern over Saakashvili's declining health in December 2022. The report said the treatment he was getting was "not effective" and recommended transferring him to a multispecialty clinic abroad.

The government's release of the video, opposition figures say, is a strategic attempt to lay the groundwork for casting doubt on the Polish team's findings.

"The visual perception may be different, but the main thing is that nothing illegal happened," Irakli Pavlenishvili, a member of the political council of the biggest opposition party, Saakashvili's United National Movement, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "Georgian Dream is trying to discredit [the doctors], because their report will be another piece of evidence showing the inhumane treatment of Saakashvili."

Saakashvili was president from 2004 to 2013 but fell from power after his party was defeated in 2012 parliamentary elections by a coalition assembled by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream. Soon after leaving office, Saakashvili moved to Ukraine, where he became a citizen and held a variety of government posts. In October 2021, he tried to return to Georgia ahead of local elections, sneaking across the border in a truck carrying dairy goods but was arrested shortly thereafter.

In a July 3 court hearing, which Saakashvili attended by video link, he was notably emaciated, and the images that emerged resulted in renewed calls by allies to send him abroad for treatment. "We do not leave friends in need," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted on July 12 in announcing the arrival of the Polish doctors to Tbilisi.

Officials from both Poland and Ukraine have been seeking to get Saakashvili transferred to their countries, but Georgian courts have denied requests by the former president's family to temporarily release him so that he can be treated abroad. In May, the European Court of Human Rights also denied the request, which government officials have argued was evidence that the Strasbourg court determined that he was not being mistreated.

EU officials have said they hoped the medical team's visit will ensure Saakashvili's proper treatment. "It's very good that the Polish doctors spent several hours with the patient. And I'm also very happy that they have talked to the VivaMedi doctors, who are taking care of him, and I sincerely hope that their expertise would help to treat the patient," the EU's ambassador to Georgia, Pawel Herczynski, said on July 17. "It is very important that all the rights of President Saakashvili, his rights as [a] defendant in court, his rights as a patient, are fully respected."

He did not mention the video.

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