Thousands rally for Georgia's jailed ex-leader Saakashvili

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Thousands of Georgians rallied Saturday for the jailed opposition leader and ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili as fears grew for his health because of a hunger strike lasting several weeks.

Waving Georgian flags and chanting Saakashvili's name, protesters gathered on Saturday evening outside the prison in Georgia's southeastern city of Rustavi, where the former president is being held.

Georgia's pro-Western reformer president from 2004-2013, Saakashvili was arrested on October 1 on his return from exile in Ukraine. He has refused food for 37 days to protest his imprisonment, which he says is politically motivated.

The jailing of the country's foremost opposition leader has further fuelled a protracted political crisis that gripped Georgia last year after the opposition denounced fraud in parliamentary elections won narrowly by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

The protesters set up a dozen of tents outside the prison in Rustavi, vowing round-the-clock permanent protests until Saakashvili is transferred to a hospital, as recommended by medics.

"Saakashvili's life must be saved," Nika Melia, the chairman of his United National Movement -- the country's main opposition party -- told the crowd.

"We give the government 24 hours to transfer him to a civilian hospital."

"If the demand is not met, all of Georgia will gather on Monday in (Tbilisi's) Freedom Square," he said.

"Our struggle will be unrelenting, peaceful."

He ridiculed as a "fairytale" claims by Georgia's state security service that Saakashvili was plotting a coup from prison.

One of the demonstrators, actor Bachi Valishvili, 26, said: "The Georgian government is leading us into an abyss of tyranny. We demand our democracy back."

"We demand Georgia's third president be transferred to a proper clinic and treated adequately, so that his life is saved," he added.

"We will not stand by and wait for the man to die, we will not let our democracy die."

- 'Serious complications looming' -

In a statement released through his lawyers, Saakashvili said Saturday that his "health condition has significantly worsened and serious complications are looming".

Doctors have said Saakashvili faces an imminent risk of death as he has an underlying blood disorder that makes his hunger strike particularly dangerous.

But Georgia's health ministry has rejected their recommendation to hospitalise him.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has said the former president will be transferred "if need be" to a prison medical facility. According to the country's rights ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria such a facility fails to meet hospitalisation criteria defined by medics.

Lomjaria also criticised as "wrong" justice ministry's claims that Saakashvili was consuming food.

She said in a statement that Saakashvili "has been on an uninterrupted hunger strike since October 1 and is not eating food".

"On medics' request, he had been taking small amounts of juices and purees containing minerals, which can't be assessed as foodstuff."

Garibashvili sparked an uproar recently by saying that Saakashvili "has the right to commit suicide" and that the government had been forced to arrest him because he refused to quit politics.

In the largest anti-government demonstration in a decade, tens of thousands rallied last month in Tbilisi to demand Saakashvili's release.

Mass pro-Saakashvili rallies were also held in several major cities across Georgia.

Critics have accused Georgian Dream of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

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