Georgia releases jailed opposition leader Nika Melia after EU bail
Nika Melia, the leader of Georgia’s main opposition United National Movement, has been released from prison, paving the way for an end to the political crisis in the country.
Waving Georgian and European flags, hundreds of supporters greeted him as he left the prison in the town of Rustavi, some 25 kilometers southeast of the capital Tbilisi.
“I wish the release of all political prisoners in Georgia,” Melia told the crowd.
“We are facing a ruthless opponent,” he said, referring to the ruling party. “Unfortunately, I am not the last political prisoner in Georgia.”
Melia, 41, was arrested in February 2021 after police stormed the headquarters of the main opposition party, sparking mass protests.
He is accused of inciting violence during an anti-government demonstration in Tbilisi in 2019.
Melia was remanded in custody after refusing to pay a bond plus 40,000 Georgian lari (9,500 euros), saying the process was politically motivated.
Prime Minister at the time, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned following his government’s plans to detain Melia.
Brussels and Washington led a chorus of international condemnation of Melia’s detention, as fears mounted in the West over Georgia’s perceived retreat on its pro-democracy commitments.
Melia’s release came after the European Union posted bail.
Negotiations between the opposition and the ruling Georgian Dream Party were negotiated with the participation of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.
EU officials said the posting of a bond for Melia was “an important step to end the political crisis in Georgia”.
Leader of several parties
The country in the far south-east of Europe has been in the throes of a crisis since parliamentary polls last October, which the opposition denounced as rigged.
Melia had united Georgia’s traditionally fractured opposition ahead of the election, emerging as a respected cross-party leader who developed an unprecedented unified opposition front against Georgian Dream’s reign.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream narrowly won the election, with the opposition regularly staging mass protests in the months that followed to demand a new vote.
In March, Michel began party-to-party talks that brought the Georgian government and several opposition parties to a deal in April.
The deal commits opposition parties to parliament, while Georgian Dream pledged sweeping political, electoral and judicial reforms.
As part of the pact, the ruling party pledged to resolve cases of “perceived politicized justice” through amnesties or similar measures within a week – the clause that concerns the criminal case against Melia.
Brussels also offered to post a bond on Melia’s behalf to have him released before the amnesty bill is passed.
Potential drama to come
The UNM had resisted joining the April deal brokered by the EU and signed by the ruling party and most opposition parties, saying it would only consider doing so once Melia is released.
The refusal of the UNM and another opposition party, European Georgia, to sign the agreement and end their parliamentary boycott left around 40 seats vacant in the 150-member Georgian legislature.
Exiled Georgian ex-president and UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili urged his party to sign the deal despite its “serious shortcomings” and enter parliament after Melia’s release.
But in an announcement expected to add further drama to Georgia’s unpredictable political landscape, the former reformist leader said last month he would return from exile in Ukraine ahead of this year’s local elections.
The pro-Western President of Georgia in 2004-2013, Saakashvili was sentenced in 2018 by a Georgian court to six years in prison for alleged abuse of power, a decision he denounced as politically motivated.
Officials warned that Saakashvili would be arrested if he returned.
His conviction and the accusations leveled against his allies by the Georgian Dream government have drawn criticism from the West over an alleged political witch-hunt.