Georgia’s imprisoned former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is likely to stay in detention in the former Soviet republic after his legal bid for medical treatment abroad was delayed on Wednesday.
After Saakashvili called off a hunger strike earlier in the week, his lawyer said Thursday that the former president would eat only food sent to him by his family because he no longer trusted the prison’s food. Saakashvili and his medical team alleged last month that he was being slowly poisoned with heavy metals.
Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader of the ex-Soviet republic between 2004 and 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters deny and call politically motivated.
On Wednesday, a Tbilisi court heard some opening arguments from prosecutors before adjourning until December 22, the second weeklong delay of the proceedings. Saakashvili, who is being treated in a Tbilisi clinic, accused the government of denying him the right to trial, but Georgia’s Justice Ministry said that the hospital was simply not equipped for videoconferencing.
“The aim is to kill Mikheil Saakashvili,” the ex-president’s lawyer, Shalva Khachapuridze, told reporters in Tbilisi on Wednesday. The government has denied that Saakashvili’s life is in danger.
Saakashvili had not been seen for months until Wednesday, when the government released video surveillance from his hospital room in an attempt to prove that he was healthier than his team has claimed.
“The aim is to prove that no one is tortured in Georgia,” Justice Minister Rati Bregadze said.
The video footage is dated from August, October and December this year. The most recent video shows the ex-president using a walker.
Saakashvili’s lawyer said that the government published footage of Saakashvili without his consent and that he would file a complaint against the justice minister and the prison system.
The charges against Saakashvili, as well as his treatment in detention, have prompted concerns among human rights watchdogs and foreign diplomats that the Georgian government’s pursuit of justice risks being seen as political retribution and a source of national division.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told VOA that department officials were closely monitoring the situation.
“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Georgian government to ensure Mr. Saakashvili’s health is protected and human rights are respected,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to advocate for the authorities to take appropriate steps to ensure his health and welfare, based on the recommendations of the public defender’s medical experts.”
On Wednesday, the European Union parliament voted for a resolution asking Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, to use her constitutional right to release Saakashvili. The resolution also emphasized the Georgian government’s responsibility for the health and life of the former president.
‘Very near death’
A medical report distributed on November 29 by Saakashvili’s legal team stated that he had been “poisoned” by heavy metals and that his life could be in danger without proper treatment. Saakashvili’s doctors say that his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes.
“He’s [Saakashvili] very near death now because the toxins are continuing to eat on his body; he needs to be transferred to a facility that understands detoxification,” Dr. David Smith, the author of the report, told VOA’s Georgian Service.
Smith could not elaborate on how exactly these toxins appeared in the former president’s body, but he believes this was not done on purpose by the doctors.
“This is speculative, but I think what happened is they didn’t recognize the heavy metal poisoning and they prescribed a whole series of drugs, some of which were counteractive,” he said. “They didn’t know what was happening. Heavy metal poisoning is a difficult diagnosis.”
In a statement to VOA, Georgia’s justice ministry said that they suggested Saakashvili take another toxicology test following the report from his medical team. The results have not been released.