Georgian ex-president says he will fly home, despite jail threat, to 'save the country'

FILE PHOTO: Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's former President and newly appointed head of the executive committee of Ukraine's National Reform Council, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his house in the village of Lisnyky outside Kiev, Ukraine May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

TBILISI (Reuters) - Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, late on Monday announced plans to fly home on the day local elections are held this week in order to help "save the country" and called for post-election street protests.

Saakashvili, who is based in Ukraine, said he planned to fly back on Saturday, despite facing imprisonment on charges he says are politically motivated.

"...The fate of Georgia is being decided, Georgia's survival is at stake and that's why I took a ticket on the evening of Oct. 2 so I can be with you and protect your (political) will with you, so I can take part in saving Georgia," said Saakashvili.

Tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition, which Saakashvili supports, have been severely strained since a parliamentary election last year which the opposition alleged was rigged. International observers said at the time that the election had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms had generally been respected.

A Georgian court in June 2018 sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to six years in prison for abuse of power and seeking to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition member of parliament when he was president.

Irakli Garibashvili, the prime minister, said the police would arrest Saakashvili if he came back.

"As soon as Saakashvili steps on our soil he will be arrested and sent to prison," the Interfax news agency cited the prime minister as telling reporters.

In a video address posted on his Facebook page, Saakashvili, who helped found the United National Movement (UNM) opposition party, called for post-election protests.

"We must all vote and show our position, and only when the polls close, we should go out onto the streets of our cities and villages, and protect our votes and our victory," the 53-year-old said against the backdrop of a red and white Georgian flag.

Before it annulled a political deal with the opposition brokered by the European Union, Georgian Dream agreed to call early parliamentary elections if it failed to secure at least 43% in the local elections.

(Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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