Thousands rally in Georgia to demand ex-president's release

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TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Thousands of protesters rallied in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Monday to demand the release of the country’s jailed former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili has remained behind bars since his arrest on Oct. 1 following his return from Ukraine in a bid to bolster opposition forces ahead of nationwide municipal elections. The elections were eventually swept by members of the ruling Georgian Dream party, but the opposition alleged fraud.

Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013 following the end of his presidency due to term limits. He later was stripped of his citizenship and sentenced in absentia to six years in prison on abuse-of-power convictions. Saakashvili and his supporters reject the accusations as politically motivated.

Supporters contend that Saakashvili’s health has seriously deteriorated as he launched a hunger strike while in prison, but Georgian authorities insist that his vital signs are normal. Justice Minister Rati Begradze said last week that Saakashvili has been consuming cereal and fruit juices.

Saakashvili's supporters have pushed for his transfer from a prison in Rustavi, 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the Tbilisi, to a private clinic, but the authorities rejected the demand, describing it as part of an alleged opposition plot to foment unrest.

On Monday, Saakashvili was moved from the Rustavi prison to a hospital in the Gldani prison in Tbilisi.

Speaking before opposition supporters on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, Nika Melia, chairman of the country’s opposition United National Movement, said by forcefully transferring Saakashvili to a prison hospital “the government has crossed all boundaries and red lines.”

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