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Zelensky Says Georgia’s Former President is Being ‘Slowly Killed.’ Here’s What to Know

5 minute read

Global leaders are raising alarms over the treatment of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is suffering from various health problems, including dramatic weight loss, after over a year of imprisonment in Georgia for what his supporters say are politically motivated charges.

Saakashvili has accused Georgian authorities of attempting to poison him, and his supporters have urged the Georgian government to have him sent abroad for medical attention. According to a Nov. 28 medical report obtained by Le Monde, an American-based toxicologist found heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury, in Saakashvili’s blood, and concluded that a “heightened risk of mortality is imminent” without proper treatment.

Who is Mikhail Saakashvili?

Saakashvili served two terms as the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013. Throughout his tenure, he was largely regarded as a reformer who addressed corruption and attempted to align Georgia more closely with the West, although he was criticized for human rights violations, especially towards his party’s political opponents. A major part of his presidency was consumed by addressing secessionist movements; Saakashvili was president during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.

Following his presidency, Saakashvili was granted Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 and was appointed as the governor of Odessa by then-President Petro Poroshenko, which led to the loss of his Georgian citizenship. However, Saakashvili resigned in 2016, accusing Poroshenko of blocking his reform efforts. He then launched an opposition political party and led protests condemning corruption in Ukraine. Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship in 2017, though Zelensky reinstated it shortly after his 2019 inauguration.

In 2018, while Saakashvili was living abroad, a Georgian court sentenced him in absentia to six years in prison for abuse of power for allegedly attempting to cover up evidence related to the 2005 beating of an opposition lawmaker. Saakashvili denied the charges, writing in a Politico editorial in 2021, “I believe these charges are unfounded and a worrying example of the party’s attempt to silence opposition.”

Saakashvili was arrested on Oct. 1, 2021, upon returning to Georgia after eight years of living abroad. The current Georgian prime minister had threatened to arrest him if he came back, but Saakashvili returned to encourage Georgians to vote for his party, the United National Movement, in local elections.

What is Saakashvili’s current condition?

Saakashvili has looked emaciated in recent images and videos, and is being treated at a private clinic in Tbilisi. In a video appearance on Wednesday, he lifted his shirt to reveal his sunken stomach and jutting ribs. Saakashvili’s team has said that his weight dropped from 254 pounds when he was jailed in Oct. 2021 to 150 pounds this week, according to Reuters.

Right now, 🇺🇦 citizen, former Georgian President @SaakashviliM is being slowly killed. The very fact that we still have to fight against such an attempt at de facto public execution of a person in Europe in the XXI century is a disgrace! 1/2 pic.twitter.com/WDWQgjAUG3

— Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 1, 2023

Saakashvili’s political party raised concerns in December that he is being poisoned. RCT/Empathy, a Georgian non-profit that provides medical care for victims of torture, said after examining him as recently as Nov. 28, they found heavy metal, including Mercury in a sample of his hair, and that he had various physical and neurological symptoms, including muscular atrophy, rapid weight loss, fever, and pain in his muscles, joints and bones. On Jan. 9, a U.S. neurologist told a Georgian court that Saakashvili is “seriously ill” and that he has dementia and muscle spasms, among other health issues, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Saakashvili has repeatedly gone on hunger strikes during his imprisonment. In November 2021, his lawyer said that he ended a seven-week hunger strike after suffering neurological damage, the AP reported.

What is the Georgian government saying?

Georgian Justice Minister Rati Bregadze and the doctor directing the Tbilisi clinic caring for Saakashvilli have denied that he is in need of ICU care, according to Agenda.ge, an English-language news publication owned by the Georgian government. The doctor, Zurab Chkhaidze, said that Saakashvili’s condition is “within the norm” and that he was refusing intravenous nutrition. On Feb. 1, Bregadze denied that Saakashvili is being tortured and called the former president’s condition “self-harm.”

How are world leaders responding?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken out about Saakashvili’s condition since December, when he urged the Georgian government to transfer the former president to a clinic abroad. On February 1, he described Saakashvili’s condition as a “de facto public execution” and called for the Georgian government to release him in posts on Twitter. Zelensky also showed images of Saakashvili’s condition at a press conference on Feb. 1. “I would like you to see what he looks like,” Zelenksy said, the Kyiv Post reported.

“I think that today the Georgian government is killing him. You know that they poisoned him and now, excuse me, they are killing him little by little,” said Zelensky, adding, “Georgia, its leadership, who are they for today? Are they neutral or are they for Russia?”

Maia Sandu, the President of Moldova, also called for Saakashvili to be released and sent abroad for medical treatment in a Feb. 2 tweet. “The critical physical condition of Mikheil Saakashvili is extremely concerning,” she wrote. “Torturing an opposition leader to death is unacceptable for a country that wants to join the European Union.”

European officials, including Carl Bildt, the co-Chair European Council on Foreign Relations, have also raised concerns about Saakashvili’s condition. “The [Georgian] regime must live up to basic [European] norms and values,” Bildt wrote on Twitter on Feb. 2.

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