Georgians take to the streets to protest at opposition leader's detention

Opposition supporters hold a rally in Tbilisi
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TBILISI (Reuters) - Hundreds took to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Friday to demand the release of opposition leader Nika Melia, after his detention threatened to intensify a political crisis that led to the prime minister's resignation last week.

Waving red and white Georgian flags, protesters marched through the city centre and gathered outside parliament to protest at Melia's detention and call for fresh parliamentary elections after a contested vote in the South Caucasus country last year.

Police on Tuesday detained Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM) opposition party, after storming its offices and clashing with his supporters.

Melia has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.

The case prompted Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia to step down and warn that Melia's detention could to exacerbate political divisions in the country of 3.7 million.

The United States and other Western countries have voiced concern at Melia's detention and said it could harm the prospect of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party.

European Council President Charles Michel is set to visit Georgia next week as part of a three-country visit that will also include Moldova and Ukraine.

Michel will meet officials including Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili -- chosen by parliament on Monday to replace Gakharia -- as well as members of the opposition.

Georgian Dream won a parliamentary election in October last year, but the opposition said the vote was rigged and marred with violations. Melia said at the time that his party did not recognise its outcome and called for a re-run.

(Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by William Maclean)