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Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili says he fears for his life in detention by the authorities in Tbilisi, while medical reports seen by POLITICO reveal traces of “mercury and arsenic” in his hair and nails, and lacerations “throughout his body.”
A personal enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saakashvili was arrested when he returned to his homeland from a self-imposed exile in October 2021. In exclusive audio tapes obtained by POLITICO, the pro-Western, U.S.-educated lawyer said he lost consciousness on several occasions after beatings by his captors.
Increasing evidence about his worsening condition is likely to ramp up international pressure on the government in Tbilisi, led by the Georgian Dream party, which many Georgians fear is seeking to preserve good relations with the Kremlin. In a sign that the treatment of Saakashvili could also throw up a significant hurdle to the country’s EU bid, the European Parliament passed a resolution last week seeking his release on “humanitarian grounds.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also called for Saakashvili to be set free, offering him a place in a Ukrainian clinic and saying his continued detention by the Georgian authorities is an act of cruelty.
In a sign of his frailty, Saakashvili appeared gaunt and emaciated in a video appearance before a Georgian court on Thursday.
A few weeks ago, he was visited by his American lawyer, Massimo D’Angelo, and two doctors, in the Tbilisi clinic where he is held. Recordings of their conversations were shared with POLITICO.
Asked whether he was “in constant fear for (his) life and safety,” Saakashvili answered: “Yes, for sure.”
The former president said he “lost consciousness” on several occasions, after “many episodes” where he was “beaten” by prison guards.
‘Then I blacked out’
“They tried to squeeze my hands and to grab me and to pull me down to the floor,” he recounted. “And then I blacked out.”
These events “have clinical features highly suggestive of seizures,” according to the report from one of the physicians who examined Saakashvili. He had “lacerations … throughout his body, including the left arm and forearm,” the report added.
Traces of “mercury and arsenic” were found in his hair and nail samples, which were collected during that visit, according to a toxicology report seen by POLITICO.
It concludes that Saakashvili suffers from “heavy metal poisoning,” putting him at a “significant increased risk of mortality if he is not immediately transferred out of Georgia and properly treated.”
In a statement published on Facebook on Tuesday, the Georgian Penitentiary service said it offered to conduct its own toxicology analysis in late November, but claims Saakashvili refused.
Asked if he suspected he was being poisoned, Saakashvili said: “Well, everything could happen here. But I don’t know.”
‘Hung by his balls’
Saakashvili became president at 37, in January 2004 — just weeks after storming parliament in Tbilisi along with thousands of demonstrators, forcing his predecessor to resign.
He served two consecutive terms until 2013, pushing a pro-Western agenda in the Caucasian republic.
He then fled his country in 2014, and spent most of his next seven tumultuous years in exile in Ukraine, where he was briefly appointed governor of the Odesa region, later arrested for forming a “criminal group” and then freed three days later.
In 2018, he was sentenced in absentia by a Georgian court to a six-year prison term on abuse of power charges, which he says are politically motivated.
The ex-president was arrested in Georgia in October 2021, shortly after he had returned home in an unexpected effort to boost his United National Movement party in municipal elections.
After his arrest, Saakashvili went on a 50-day hunger strike, which caused significant damage to his health.
He has been detained ever since.
European Dream imperiled
The case now looks set to hamper Georgia’s efforts to join the European Union.
Georgia applied for membership last March, together with Ukraine and Moldova. But, unlike the other two, it was not granted candidate status, and will have to implement several reforms first.
Saakashvili’s situation is “symbolic” and “one of the main indicators of how the Georgian judiciary works,” together with that of another jailed political opponent, broadcaster Nika Gvaramia, European lawmaker Anna Fotyga told POLITICO.
These “will be important factors while assessing Georgia’s application,” said Fotyga, who sits in the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee.
MEP Raphaël Glucksmann warned: “If Saakashvili dies in jail, it’s the end of Georgia’s European fate, and a shame for European leaders.”
“Doors are wide open for Georgia if the government makes gestures that can reassure us on rule of law issues,” added the Frenchman, who is a former adviser and “personal friend” of Saakashvili.
Earlier this month, Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said Saakashvili could not be released because it would “destabilize the country,” Georgian news agency InterPressNews reported.
Pointing to the corruption scandal that is rocking the EU, he said the resolution reflected “corruption problems and oligarchic influences that are clearly visible in the European Parliament.”
If the authorities do not budge, it will pit them against their own people, Glucksmann said. According to the latest polls, 85 percent of Georgians support EU membership.
‘All about politics’
Yet, a growing number of Georgians fear that their government is moving closer to Moscow under Georgian Dream, the ruling party, in power since 2012.
Its founder, former chairman and ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has close ties to Russia, where he built his fortune in the 1990s.
Officially no longer involved in politics, the billionaire is still widely believed to be pulling the strings.
Saakashvili claims he is a “political prisoner” and says his incarceration “is all about politics.”
“He is dying in a Georgian jail, at the hands of an oligarch that made his fortune in Russia,” said Glucksmann, the French MEP, calling it “an incredible injustice.”
“He was Putin’s personal enemy. Now, he’s Putin prisoner,” Glucksmann added.
Contacted by POLITICO, Georgian Dream Chairman Kobakhidze was not available for comment.
Dato Parulava contributed reporting.