Georgia's Saakashvili renews, then calls off hunger strike over court delays

Georgian former President Saakashvili prays for Ukraine during a court hearing in Tbilisi
Georgian former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was convicted in absentia of abuse of power during his presidency and arrested upon his return from exile, holds a candle while praying for Ukraine in a defendant's dock during a court hearing in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 17, 2022. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
  • Ex-Georgian president serving disputed prison sentence
  • Supporters push for release on medical grounds
  • Authorities say Saakashvili 'simulating' illness

TBILISI, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Georgia's jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a new hunger strike then abandoned it within hours on Wednesday as he faced further delay in a legal bid to get medical treatment abroad.

Saakashvili, who led the former Soviet republic as a pro-Western reformer from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes. He is being treated in a Tbilisi clinic, but lawyers have sought to have his sentence suspended so he can be transferred abroad.

On Wednesday, a Tbilisi court heard some opening arguments from prosecutors before it adjourned until Dec. 22 in the second week-long delay to proceedings.

Saakashvili said he would renew a hunger strike to protest not being allowed to appear in court via video link. But a few hours later, he said he was calling it off after being urged to do so by members of the European Parliament.

He said they did not want him "to give an excuse to the relevant services, as if I myself am doing harm." He also reiterated allegations that he had been poisoned.

Georgian authorities say Saakashvili is "simulating" the seriousness of his condition in an attempt to secure his release.

The 54-year-old has not been seen in public for months, and his team says the authorities are trying to conceal the state of his health by not letting him appear in court via video link.

Following the hearing on Wednesday, Georgia's prison service released footage it said was captured from a camera in Saakashvili's room between August and December.

In some clips Saakashvili appears to resist some medical attention and throws a bag of shopping against a wall while lying in a hospital-style bed. The Special Penitentiary Service said in a statement this was a demonstration of his "abuse and aggressive behaviour ... towards medical staff."

It added: "This video clearly shows Mikheil Saakashvili’s simulated actions aimed at obstructing justice, misleading public and international partners."

Reuters was unable to verify the footage or when it was filmed. Lawyers for Saakashvili could not be reached for comment.

The European Union has called reports about Saakashvili's health "worrying" and called on the government to provide medical care.

But critics, including those in the ruling Georgian Dream party, say he abused his power and lost popular support.

He was convicted in absentia in 2018 and then sent to prison in October 2021 after he returned to Georgia from Ukraine, where he had been advising President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on reforms.

Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili in Tbilisi; Additional reporting and writing by Jake Cordell in Tbilisi; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman

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