Police stormed the party offices of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him on Tuesday, deepening a political crisis that prompted the prime minister to resign last week.
Melia’s supporters had barricaded themselves in the offices, using furniture to block the doors. Scores of police surged into the building during the early morning raid, including using firefighting ladders to gain access via the roof.
Seventeen people were hurt in the scuffles between police and activists, the Interfax news agency reported. Some activists were coughing and suffered eye irritation after police sprayed gas towards them from hand-held canisters.
Melia, the United National Movement (UNM) party’s chairman in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Hundreds of people massed outside parliament to protest against his detention and pitched two tents in the capital Tbilisi. One protester held up a sign calling for a snap election, the government’s resignation and freedom for “political prisoners”.
A UNM party member called for a large-scale protest march on Feb. 26, the Rustavi 2 media outlet reported.
The Interior Ministry said it had no option but to use coercive measures at Melia’s party offices as activists had ignored numerous warnings not to obstruct their work.
The U.S. Embassy said it was deeply concerned by Melia’s detention and expressed regret that its call for restraint and dialogue had been ignored.
“Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations,” it said in a statement.
Britain’s ambassador Mark Clayton urged restraint from all sides. The European Union’s ambassador called for efforts to find common ground.
“The logic of escalation is getting the upper hand. The political crisis is deepening,” the EU diplomat, Carl Hartzell, wrote on Twitter.
Zygimantas Pavilionis, a special envoy from the Lithuanian parliament who returned on Monday from a mediating mission to Georgia, said the authorities had been seeking support from Western diplomats for a crackdown.
“They were asking for green light from me, from the EU ambassador, from the American ambassador. I said, no way,” he said. “Now democracy is dying there.”
Last week, a court ordered Melia to be detained for allegedly failing to post bail, but the Interior Ministry said it would not immediately detain him because of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s resignation.
Gakharia abruptly stepped down on Feb. 18, citing a disagreement with his own team over the court order for Melia’s arrest. He had said the detention was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions.
Late on Monday, Georgia’s parliament voted to form a new government led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who served as prime minister in 2013-15 and whose candidacy was put forward by the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The Interior Ministry said in a separate statement that its computer infrastructure had been hit by a cyber-attack from abroad, but that it had repelled it.