TBILISI (Reuters) – Supporters of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili scuffled with police and 15 were arrested, the interior ministry said, as he appeared in court on Monday to dispute charges of abusing his office.
Ten days after ending a hunger strike, the 53-year-old delivered a defiant speech lasting more than an hour in which he rejected the accusations against him.
Saakashvili was arrested on Oct. 1 after returning from exile to rally the opposition on the eve of local elections. He faces six years in prison after being convicted in absentia in 2018 of abusing his office, charges he rejects as politically motivated.
Saakashvili’s lawyer Beka Basilaia said the ex-president had rejected a new charge relating to the violent dispersal of an opposition rally in 2007, saying he had taken political responsibility at the time by resigning and getting himself re-elected.
Addressing the 2018 convictions, Saakashvili defended his right to pardon ex-policemen accused of murdering a banker and rejected as hearsay the evidence presented against him in another case involving the beating of an opposition member of parliament.
The former leader smiled and waved on entering the court, showing no apparent ill effects from the seven-week hunger strike. Prison authorities said at one point during the protest that Saakashvili was accepting baby food.
He denied this but said he was drinking juice.
He called off the protest on Nov. 19 after authorities agreed to move him to a military hospital from a prison hospital where the country’s human rights commissioner had said he was being verbally abused by fellow inmates and not receiving proper medical treatment.
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow and Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)