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Georgia frees jailed opposition leader Nika Melia after EU posts bail

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Nika Melia, the leader of Georgia”s main opposition party United National Movement, has been released from prison, paving the way to end the political crisis in the country.

Waving Georgian and EU flags, hundreds of supporters greeted him as he left the penitentiary facility in the city of Rustavi, some 25 kilometres southeast of the capital Tbilisi.

“I want to wish liberation for all the political prisoners in Georgia,” Melia told the crowd.

“We are facing a ruthless opponent,” he said, referring to the ruling party. “Unfortunately, I am not the last political prisoner in Georgia.”

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Melia, 41, was arrested in February 2021 after police stormed the headquarters of the main opposition party, sparking mass protests.

He is charged with incitement to violence during an anti-government protest in Tbilisi in 2019.

Melia was sent to pretrial detention after he refused to pay increased bail of 40,000 Georgian Lari (9,500 euros) saying the process was politically motivated.

Then-prime minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned over his government’s plans to detain Melia.

Brussels and Washington led a chorus of international condemnation of Melia’s detention, as fears mounted in the West over Georgia’s perceived backsliding on commitments to democracy.

Melia’s release came about after the European Union posted his bail.

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Negotiations between the opposition and the ruling Georgian Dream Party were mediated with the involvement of the European Council President Charles Michel.

EU representatives said paying bail for Melia is “an important step taken to end the political crisis in Georgia.”

Cross-party leader

The country in Europe’s extreme southeast has been gripped by crisis since last October’s parliamentary polls, which the opposition denounced as rigged.

Melia had united Georgia’s traditionally fractured opposition ahead of the elections, emerging as a respected cross-party leader who developed an unprecedented unified opposition front against Georgian Dream’s rule.

In power since 2012, Georgian Dream narrowly won the election, with the opposition regularly staging mass protests in the months since to demand a fresh vote.

In March, Michel initiated inter-party talks that brought the Georgian government and several opposition parties to an agreement in April.

The deal commits opposition parties to enter parliament, while Georgian Dream has promised sweeping political, electoral, and judicial reforms.

Under the pact, the ruling party pledged to resolve cases of “perceived politicised justice” through amnesties or similar measures within a week — the clause that concerns the criminal case against Melia.

Brussels also offered to post bail on Melia’s behalf to have him released from custody before the amnesty bill is passed.

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Potential drama ahead

The UNM had held out on joining April’s EU-mediated deal that was signed by the ruling party and most opposition parties, saying it would consider doing so only once Melia was released from custody.

The refusal by the UNM and another opposition party, European Georgia, to sign the agreement and to end their parliamentary boycott has left around 40 seats vacant in Georgia’s 150-member legislature.

Georgia’s exiled ex-president and the UNM’s founder, Mikheil Saakashvili, urged his party to sign the agreement despite its “serious shortcomings” and to enter parliament after Melia’s release from custody.

But in an announcement expected to inject further drama into Georgia’s unpredictable political landscape, the reformist former leader said last month that he will return from exile in Ukraine ahead of local elections this year.

Georgia’s pro-Western president in 2004-2013, Saakashvili was sentenced in 2018 by a Georgian court to six years in prison for alleged abuse of office, a ruling he denounced as politically motivated.

Officials have warned that Saakashvili will be arrested if he returns.

His conviction and charges brought against his allies by the Georgian Dream government have prompted criticism from the West over an alleged political witch-hunt.

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