Thousands of people marched through Tbilisi to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Waving Georgia’s five-cross flag and holding banners that read “Free Saakashvili!” Protesters marched through the Georgian capital before gathering in front of parliament for the rally which coincides with the politician’s 54th birthday.
Protesters pledged to go on a “mass hunger strike” until his release.
Saakashvili’s arrest sparked a political crisis stemming from last year’s parliamentary polls, which the opposition denounced as fraudulent. It has also spurred the biggest anti-government protests in a decade.
“Today we are launching a mass hunger strike which will only end when Mikheil Saakashvili is released from captivity,” said Nika Melia, president of the United National Movement (UNM) of Saakashvili.
It is not known how many people intend to participate in the hunger strike outside the UNM headquarters.
“This is a non-violent protest, a difficult gesture, we have no choice but to pressure the regime to loosen its grip on the Georgian state it has captured,” added Melia.
“We need freedom here and now”
The announcement comes as Georgian President Salomé Zurabishvili aims to facilitate “national reconciliation” to overcome political polarization and division among the public.
Melia praised the national reconciliation process initiated by Zourabishvili and promised that the opposition would do their best to play a positive role in this process.
In a message to supporters read at the rally by Saakashvili’s mother Giuli Alasania, the former leader called for national unity and peaceful mass protests to pressure the authorities to hold parliamentary elections anticipated.
He said “Georgia’s long-held dream and historic aspiration for European integration is under threat”.
“We have a vital need for free media, impartial justice, fair elections. We need freedom here and now, and for good.
“Changing the current regime is an essential precondition for realizing our Western aspirations,” Saakashvili continued, referring to the ruling Georgian Dream party founded by the powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.
“We won’t stop until Saakashvili is free”
The richest man in Georgia, who made his fortune in Russia, Ivanishvili is widely regarded as the country’s top decision-maker, although he has no official political role.
One of the protesters, the 47-year-old architect Giorgi Darsavelidze, claimed that “the Ivanishvili regime will collapse under popular pressure”.
“We will not stop until Saakashvili is free, until Georgia has returned to its European path,” he declared.
On Saturday, an independent board of doctors who examined Saakashvili in detention said he had developed serious neurological diseases “as a result of torture, ill-treatment, inadequate medical treatment and a prolonged hunger strike.”
Saakashvili refused to feed for 50 days to protest his imprisonment for abuse of power, a conviction he denounced as politically motivated.
The pro-Western reformer called off his hunger strike after being placed – in critical condition – in a military hospital in the town of Gori, in eastern Georgia.
President of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was arrested on October 1 of this year, shortly after his secret return to Georgia from exile in Ukraine.
Human rights group Amnesty International called Saakashvili’s treatment “not just selective justice but apparent political revenge”.
The US State Department has urged the Georgian government “to treat Saakashvili fairly and with dignity.”
Several other rights groups accused the Georgian government of using criminal prosecution to punish political opponents and critical media.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili recently sparked an uproar when he said the government was forced to arrest Saakashvili because he refused to quit politics.
The former president also faces additional charges, including illegal seizure of property, embezzlement, illegal dispersal of gatherings and illegal border crossing.