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Georgia Arrests Ex-President Saakashvili After He Returns From Exile

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A smiling Mikheil Saakashvili is shown in handcuffs in a video released by the Georgian Interior Ministry.

Georgian authorities have announced the arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, hours after he said he had returned from exile on the eve of local elections regarded as critical to the South Caucasus country's political makeup.

Saakashvili was held by law enforcement officers and taken to a penitentiary, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said on October 1, about 18 hours after Saakashvili announced he had returned to Georgia following an eight-year absence.

Details of the arrest were not immediately clear, but the Interior Ministry said the former president had been taken to Rustavi Penitentiary No. 12, about a 30-minute drive south of the capital, Tbilisi. The ministry distributed a video showing police officers taking a smiling Saakashvili in handcuffs out a car and leading him into a building.

Public ombudswoman Nino Lomjaria said she met with Saakashvili in the penitentiary. Lomjaria quoted him as saying he was arrested earlier in the day in the capital, Tbilisi, and that he didn't resist police. Saakashvili also said he was launching a hunger strike.

In an earlier Facebook video, Saakashvili said he was in the Black Sea city of Batumi, Georgia's second-largest city.

Saakashvili, who was convicted of crimes in absentia in 2018 and has lived in Ukraine in recent years, announced plans earlier this week to fly home for the October 2 balloting for mayors and local assemblies, despite facing prison, claiming he wanted to help "save the country" amid a protracted political crisis.

Video Shows Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili Being Detained
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The polls are seen as a vote of confidence in the government in Tbilisi and could trigger snap elections next year.

Initially, the government denied he had entered the country but then Gharibashvili told a brief news conference, "I want to inform the public that the third president of Georgia, wanted person Mikheil Saakashvili, has been detained. He has been transferred to the penitentiary."

Calling the 53-year-old ex-president a "criminal," the prime minister said Georgian law enforcement officials "had prior information about the movements of Saakashvili, starting from Ukraine, toward Georgia."

"Relevant agencies worked in coordination and chose the time and place that would have minimal chance of external interference," he added.

Gharibashvili did not provide details about the circumstances surrounding Saakashvili's arrest.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has summoned the Georgian ambassador in Kyiv "to receive official information on the grounds and circumstances of such detention," a ministry spokesman told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is concerned about the arrest and the "tone" of statements coming from Georgia, a spokesman wrote on Facebook.

Saakashvili has been a Ukrainian citizen since 2015 and heads the executive committee of Ukraine's National Reform Council, which was created the previous year to carry out strategic planning and coordinate reforms.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili thanked law enforcement agencies for Saakashvili's arrest, accusing him of trying to destabilize the country.

Zurabishvili also said she would "never" pardon Saakashvili, who was sentenced in absentia to a total of nine years in prison after being found guilty of abusing his authority in two separate cases.

He was convicted of trying to cover up evidence related to the 2005 beating of an opposition lawmaker and about the killing of a Georgian banker.

The ex-president considers the charges against him to be politically motivated.

Saakashvili's whereabouts remained unknown for hours after he said in a video posted on Facebook on the morning of October 2 that he was in Batumi:

The authorities later said there was no record of Saakashvili crossing the border, and the ruling Georgian Dream party accused him of faking his return amid a protracted political crisis.

Earlier this week, Saakashvili said on his Facebook page that "the fate of Georgia is being decided. Georgia's survival is at stake, and that's why I took a ticket on the evening of October 2 so I can be with you and protect your [political] will with you, so I can take part in saving Georgia."

He also posted a photo of his purported plane ticket.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service quoted sources at Kyiv's Boryspil international airport as saying that Saakashvili "did not leave Ukraine" via the airport.

Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Darakhvelidze said the ex-president "did not cross the Georgian border," according to RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza.

"We got connected with the Ukrainian side. I can say precisely and for sure that Mikheil Saakashvili did not leave Ukrainian territory," Darakhvelidze said.

Gharibashvili had said the police would arrest Saakashvili as soon as he stepped on Georgian soil.

Parliament speaker Mamuka Mdinaradze, a member of Georgian Dream, called Saakashvili a "fraud."

Mikheil Saakashvili served as president of Georgia from January 2004 to November 2013, when he was voted out of office.
Mikheil Saakashvili served as president of Georgia from January 2004 to November 2013, when he was voted out of office.

"All the video footage circulated by Saakashvili from nighttime Batumi is fake and the latest clowning around," said Givi Mikanadze, another top party official.

Ukrainian member of parliament Yelyzaveta Yasko took to Facebook to urge Ukrainian authorities to "protect" Saakashvili.

The 30-year-old Yasko also posted a video of Saakashvili and herself, in which he announces their relationship.

Mikheil Saakashvili and Yelyzaveta Yasko as they appeared in their Facebook video announcing their relationship.
Mikheil Saakashvili and Yelyzaveta Yasko as they appeared in their Facebook video announcing their relationship.

"Today Lisa Yasko and I are together, we have our joint family, we want everyone to understand our story and wish us happiness," he said in the clip, which Yasko said was recorded before he departed for Georgia.

Tensions have been high in Georgia between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition, which Saakashvili supports, since parliamentary elections last year that the opposition said were rigged.

International observers said at the time that the election had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms had generally been respected.

Before it annulled a political deal with the opposition brokered by the European Union, Georgian Dream agreed to call early parliamentary elections if it failed to secure at least 43 percent of the vote in the local polls.

Saakashvili served as president of Georgia from January 2004 to November 2013, when he was voted out of office.

In recent years, he has held several top government positions in Ukraine, and was briefly the governor of the Black Sea region of Odesa.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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