I am a political prisoner in Georgia and I am dying – POLITICO

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Mikheil Saakashvili was President of the Republic of Georgia from 2004 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2013.

As February marks the first anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insane and unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine, Georgia and other countries in the region continue to slide towards the Kremlin. Georgia’s democratic backsliding was highlighted again with the release of the US State Department’s human rights report, while the global threat to democracy was highlighted during a meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.

At the same time, however, the people of Georgia reaffirmed their commitment to democracy and the fight against this tyranny by protesting on the streets in front of the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi.

The people of Georgia – who overwhelmingly want to join the European Union and NATO – protested a newly enacted “foreign agent” law that would require any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from overseas to register to leave or be prosecuted substantial fines. Analogous to a current Russian law, the bill aimed to restrict the work of independent journalists and democratic institutions.

All of this happened just a few kilometers from the prison cell where I am struggling to survive and where I continue to defend democracy against Putin and his allies. I am a political prisoner in Georgia – the country I led as President from 2004 to 2013 and worked hard to reorient towards democracy and the West.

After just a few months in power, I was lauded by leaders in Europe and the US for championing democracy and free markets and ending a period of de facto control of my country by organized crime syndicates. In 2005, I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain for “gaining popular support for the universal values ​​of democracy, individual liberty and civil rights.”

Feeling threatened by the success of Georgia’s Western-oriented reforms, Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which led to a brief war. Instead of fleeing, like my friend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, I was determined to fight and stand up to Putin’s aggression. After the war, Russia controlled over 20 percent of the Georgian territory it still owns today—the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—but I survived and continued to lead until I resigned after my second term.

I then oversaw the first peaceful transfer of power brought about by democratic elections in the region.

At that time and for several years after the 2008 war, I tried to warn my Western colleagues about Putin’s imperialist ambitions and the threat he posed. But while the West expressed much-needed support and solidarity with our cause, few seemed to take the threat of Putin’s militarism seriously. Apparently, the Kremlin’s ridiculous narrative that my government had somehow provoked the war had stirred up enough doubts among many in the West to convince themselves that Putin had no broader revanchist agenda.

Of course, the war in Ukraine exposed Putin’s true imperialist ambitions to reestablish the Soviet empire by annexing its formerly occupied territories, but I am not satisfied if I am proved right. Because the man who once threatened to “hang me by the balls” is undoubtedly ultimately responsible for my current predicament.

Georgian Dream, the political party that came to power after I resigned, was founded and continues to be run behind the scenes by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili – a man who made his fortune in Moscow in the 1990s and who generally is believed to have close ties with Putin.

And despite the overwhelming support of the Georgian people for EU integration – an estimated 80 percent support accession – the Georgian Dream government is showing increasing solidarity with Russia. While there are of course legitimate fears of being openly anti-Kremlin given the danger Georgia faces, the vast majority of Georgians support the Ukrainian cause, which the government is trying to suppress.

The war in Ukraine has shed light on Putin’s real imperialist ambitions to restore the Soviet empire | Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

When I returned to Georgia in October 2021, after eight years in exile, to campaign for free and fair parliamentary elections, I was a healthy, energetic 54-year-old man. I was immediately arrested by the Georgian authorities and have since been imprisoned on hearsay and politically motivated allegations of “abuse of power” that only the Kremlin and the current Georgian government believe are legitimate.

And in detention my health has deteriorated precipitously; I’m dying now.

I have been systematically tortured physically and mentally, and there is currently evidence of heavy metal poisoning in my body. I now suffer from a bewildering array of over 20 serious illnesses, all developed while in prison.

In the face of all this, the European Parliament issued a resolution in mid-February calling for my release and passed non-binding resolutions calling for sanctions against Ivanishvili, noting Georgia’s democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream government continues to taunt Western leaders and gloat as Georgia rapidly moves away from a European future while peaceful civilians are beaten and tear gassed for supporting democratic ideals.

Despite Georgia’s deteriorating relationship with the US, Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Dick Durbin recently visited Tbilisi to meet with government officials. And while the senators’ request to visit me in prison was predictably denied, I appreciate their interest in my health and well-being. I also commend the current leaders of Congress, such as Reps Joe Wilson and Steve Cohen and Senators Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin, for their efforts against the attacks on Georgia’s strategic partnerships and the imprisonment of political opponents, and for opposing Georgian law about foreign agents – a rebuke of the Georgian people’s EU and NATO aspirations – and the country’s rapid democratic decline.

Without the help of Congress and the Biden government, as well as the EU and UK parliaments, the current government will continue to ignore not only democracy but also the rule of law, and the fundamental pillars of human rights will continue to erode in Georgia.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that if I do not receive proper medical care outside of the country, I will die soon.

I continue to urge the US and the international community to do everything in their power to save my life by exerting diplomatic pressure on the Georgian government and imposing economic sanctions on Ivanishvili and his allies.

My death may cause political chaos in Georgia, but my martyrdom will surely be seen as a victory for Putin – a powerful symbol for all leaders in this region and possibly the world who fail to stand up to Russian imperialism.

However, if the US Congress and the Biden administration can work with the EU to secure my release through sanctions, economic embargoes, funding suspensions and visa restrictions, it will not only be another blow to Putin, but also send a strong signal for keeping the US and Europe committed to the ideals of democracy, decency and justice.

Ideals that President Biden once told me I could count on.

  • *This article was provided by Mikheil Saakashvili’s US Legal Counsel Massimo F. ​​D’Angelo.