Misha - Georgia’s №1 Prisoner from Cell №320

21 October, 2021

Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party could not even dream on the eve of the October 2 elections that they would have their archnemesis Mikheil Saakashvili, third president of Georgia and founder and leader of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party behind the bars. But on October 1, exactly 9 years after GD won the seminal 2012 elections, Prime Minister Gharibashvili informed the nation that Misha had been arrested. Glowing PM in the presence of the Minister of Interior and the Head of State Security Service then congratulated everyone with Bidzina’s day, a bizarre statement, but not surprising from Bidzina Ivanishvili’s former personal assistant.

Saakashvili is now in jail and on hunger strike, as his health and energy deteriorate. Georgian Dream leaders and their disinformation machine including the propaganda Imedi TV and PosTV channels expressed doubts that Misha refuses food intake. The line had been that Saakashvili ordered 7 jars of honey - implying that Misha was devouring bear jars, while in reality 50 mg cans have been purchased to use with the tea - a standard hunger strike protocol in Georgia’s prisons. Misha had since returned the honey and the Government decided to create a consilium of doctors, to oversee Prisoner #1’s health. Meanwhile, over 60 thousand Misha supporters gathered on Freedom Square on October 14 in the largest crowd-gathering since 2012. Another 100.000 signed an online petition demanding Saakashvili’s release. His court hearing was scheduled in mid-November, i.e. after the elections - an obvious attempt by the Government to prevent him from appearing on camera and address the supporters before the crucial second rounds on October 30.

The third President was sentenced in absentia in 2018 on two separate abuse of power charges – 3 years for pardoning the former Interior Ministry officials, convicted in the high-profile murder case, and 6 years for organizing an attack on opposition MP Valeri Gelashvili. He is also charged with the misappropriation of public funds and exceeding official authority in the 2007 anti-government protests case. That Saakashvili’s arrest and his indictments are politically motivated was once again confirmed by Prime Minister Gharibashvili, who proudly stated on TV that Saakashvili, should either “Behave, or Face Additional Charges”. On October 20, the prosecution additionally charged Saakashvili with the illegal border-crossing - seemingly the only case where the Government has enough proof.

Here are some of the peculiarities of the 4 cases against Saakashvili. On November 7, 2007, police used force to disperse a peaceful rally in front of the Parliament. TV Imedi, a major opposition channel at that time, was raided by the law enforcers to allegedly stop the station from inciting violence on air. While these acts were despicable it is evident from the prosecution’s files that they first pressed the charges and only later found the witnesses of Misha’s guilt. Or rather a single witness - former Parliamentary chairwoman Nino Burjanadze. Interestingly charges were pressed against Saakashvili three hours before Mrs. Burjanadze, Saakashvili’s political opponent and thus not a credible source was even questioned as a witness. Another charge related to November 7 events includes attempts to misappropriate Badri Patarkatsishvili’s (an oligarch, who was in Saakashvili’s opposition at that time) property and shut down the Imedi TV channel. Here also, no evidence or witnesses certify Saakashvili giving orders, or having an interest in Patarkatsishvili’s property. While one can assume that Saakashvili was indeed behind these acts, from a legal perspective the case against Misha is based on either circumstantial evidence or hearsays and single witness testimonies.

The second case against Saakashvili is related to the beating of former MP Valeri Gelashvili, Saakashvili’s political opponent in 2005. According to the prosecution, Saakashvili organized the beating, because Gelashvili had insulted Saakashvili’s family members in a newspaper article. Here also the only witness is a former defense minister and Saakashvili’s former ally-turned-into-foe Irakli Okruashvili, who testified that Saakashvili asked him to organize Gelashvili’s beating, though he had politely declined. The prosecution then developed a theory that such an order was given to Minister of Interior Vano Merabishvili (who already served a prison sentence for Gelashvili’s beating in 2013-2020). No direct eyewitnesses or evidence of such an order are presented by the prosecution.

The third case against Saakashvili is about the misappropriation of state funds, known as the “suits’ case”. In 2009-2013 Presidential Fund allocated 5.9 mln GEL (1.88 mln USD) to the State Security Special Service, which according to the law had a function of covering the President's expenses, whether foreseen or unforeseen by the state budget. The prosecution alleges that the purchases of a number of suits, undergoing medical therapies, inviting foreign guests and presenting them with the gifts, as well as covering other unnecessary expenses during the overseas stays were in violation of the law. While one can easily argue that Saakashvili indeed enjoyed life with these funds, from a legal perspective there was no restriction on how these funds were disbursed, since the budgetary articles included “foreseen”, as well “unforeseen” expenditures. Political motive is clearly visible when one compares how the spending of public funds by the subsequent Presidents Margvelashvili and Zurabishvili is scrutinized in a different manner. The prosecution has expressed zero interest in President Margvelashvili making comparable spendings, or President Zurabishvili purchasing over 1 mln worth of antique furniture.

The fourth case and probably the biggest nail in UNM’s political coffin in 2012 was the case of Sandro Girgvliani’s murder. In 2005 a young banker died as a result of beating by the Ministry of Interior officials. The prosecution alleges that Saakashvili is guilty of pardoning the perpetrators, who were subsequently arrested, but released as a result of Presidential pardon and parliamentary amnesty in 2008 (together with 363 other inmates). In Georgia, an act of pardon is a constitutional power of the President and while morally and politically pardoning of murderers might not be justifiable, legally Saakashvili was entitled to do so. The prosecution alleges that when the ministry officials were arrested, they already had guarantees from Saakashvili, that they would spend a short time in jail under favourable conditions. However there is neither any evidence nor an eyewitness of such a pledge from Saakashvili, save aforementioned Mr. Okruashvili, who testified that he “was sure” that Saakashvili had made such a promise. Prosecuting the third President for an act of pardon by the GD Government raises serious doubts about the political nature of the case, taking into account that GD itself has a track record of dubious amnesties and pardons. In 2013 GD controlled parliament issued a wide amnesty releasing thousands of prisoners, including convicted Russian spies. Presidents Margvelashvili and Zurabishvili have also made controversial pardons, including a relative and former officials.

While Georgian Dream maintains that Saakashvili will spend many years in prison, the international community’s response has been critical. A number of prominent internationally recognized politicians, among them former and current members of European Parliament, ministers and MPs called on the Government of Georgia to suspend the imprisonment of the former President “considering the pending application to the European Court of Human rights by President Saakashvili”. U.S. Department of State urged Georgian authorities to ensure that Mr. Saakashvili is afforded fair treatment in accordance with Georgian law and Georgia’s international human rights commitments and obligations. According to the MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, “the freedom of this one man is a condition for the freedom of the country”.

Saakashvili in prison, albeit physically weak, is a political headache for the Georgian Dream, which is cautiously jubilant. Yes, Misha can not be GD’s and Ivanishvili’s political alternative for now, as he is in prison, however, opposition supporters have received an energy boost from the leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution. At least 60 and as many as 70 thousand gathered on Freedom Square on October 14 to express support for their imprisoned leader. Now Georgian Dream plans to hold a response rally on October 28, by mobilizing civil servants, party officials and Misha haters.

That Misha haters exist is no secret. After his imprisonment, Georgian Dream gathered dozens of his haters, including odious former defense minister Tengiz Kitovani (responsible for civil war in the 1990s and war in Abkhazia), and Tristan Tsitelashvili (military general, with close ties with Russia) in front of the Rustavi prison, who cursed and yelled at Saakashvili in a well-staged demonstration, intending to remind Georgians, how awful Saakashvili’s government was.

Why Saakashvili, a Ukrainian citizen since 2015, sneaked back to Georgia on the eve of elections, remains a mystery. His plan most likely included a David Copperfield style appearance at a snap press conference a night before the elections and then mobilizing thousands of his supporters with an aim of preventing his imminent arrest. Misha at large on the election day could have been a powerful weapon in getting anti-GD voters out to vote. Another explanation is that Saakashvili deliberately came back to be arrested, in a way sacrificing himself for the purpose of getting his supporters to vote en masse and “save the country” from Ivanishvili’s rule. At least this is the line that the UNM leaders now advance. The third explanation could be a simple miscalculation of his own prowess and underestimation of GD’s efficiency in hunting down the biggest political opponent. Whatever the actual reason, the fact remains - Misha is now in prison and the upcoming second round will determine how long he stays behind the bars.

The events of Misha’s arrest unfolded in such a chronology: early morning on October 1, Saakashvili posted on Facebook - “good morning from homeland”. A few hours later he posted a video from the Batumi boulevard, and shortly afterwards - another video also from Batumi. Videos appeared to have been taken before dawn. These videos seemed incredulous to many since Misha had announced his return at least 17 times in the last 8 years, and his words seemed to have lost credibility. Even when he posted a Kyiv-Tbilisi flight ticket on September 27, not many believed his words.

Georgian Dream officials spent the whole day downplaying the videos, claiming that Saakashvili was in Kyiv, or Truskavets (a town in Ukraine), that he was trolling Georgians and that he had not crossed the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, UNM leaders celebrated Misha’s return, without revealing where exactly he was. In the evening, however, the PM made a press conference, announcing Misha’s arrest and apologizing to his fellow GD leaders for not informing them that Saakashvili was indeed in Georgia, something that would have saved embarrassment for GD’s parliamentary leaders.

As investigation later showed, Misha entered the Georgian port of Poti from the Ukrainian Chernomorsk port on September 29 hiding in the container with dairy products. He was assisted by a truck driver - a local resident who then transported him to his house in Samegrelo and then took him to Batumi and Tbilisi, where he was subsequently arrested the next evening. Before the arrest, Saakashvili managed to even order khinkali - Georgian national meat dumplings - but could not enjoy them, as police visited shortly afterwards. Video of his arrest showed Misha smiling and waving to cameras - a spirit that his supporters have since embraced. Whether this optimism and fight for Saakashvili’s freedom translate into the electoral outcome, we will see on October 30.