Georgian ex-president threatened, abused in prison hospital - rights official

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  • Rights official says jail lacks proper medical equipment
  • Saakashvili says guards mistreated him during transfer
  • Lawyer says he is subject to 'psychological terror'

TBILISI, Nov 9 (Reuters) - The prison hospital treating Georgia's hunger-striking former president Mikheil Saakashvili lacks proper medical equipment and fellow inmates there have threatened and abused him, a Georgian human rights official said on Tuesday.

"Particular attention should be paid to the environment in which Mikheil Saakashvili is placed, which grossly violates human rights," Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, Georgia's rights ombudsman, said in a statement.

Authorities in the South Caucasus country transferred the 53-year-old Saakashvili to a prison hospital in the capital Tbilisi on Monday, just over five weeks after he declared a hunger strike in jail.

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Lomjaria, who visited him the same day, said the hurling of insults and threats from other prisoners "can be heard in Saakashvili's cell...and clearly represents psychological pressure".

Saakashvili was arrested on Oct. 1 after returning from exile to Georgia to rally the opposition on the eve of local elections, in what he described as a mission to save the country. He faces six years in prison after being convicted in absentia in 2018 of abusing his office during his 2004-2013 presidency, charges he rejects as politically motivated.

A Georgian court is set to hear his case on Wednesday, RIA news agency reported.

"We urge the government of Georgia to immediately take steps to ensure that Mr. Saakashvili's urgent mental health and medical needs are addressed," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing. "We continue to urge the government of Georgia to treat Mr. Saakashvili fairly and with dignity and in accordance with international standards and Georgian law."

In a letter published by his lawyers, Saakashvili alleged that prison guards had insulted him, dragged him to the ground, including by his hair, and hit him several times in the neck as he was being transferred.

Beka Basilaia, Saakashvili's lawyer, accused the authorities of refusing out of spite to transfer him to a civilian clinic as he had requested.

He told Reuters that prison authorities were using inmates to intimidate Saakashvili to get back at him for the reforms he enacted during his presidency, including his campaign against organised crime.

"They want revenge," Basilaia said of the authorities. "They want to pressure Saakashvili with psychological terror and undermine his physical safety at the hands of criminals."

Surveillance footage published by the Georgian prison service that was timestamped on Monday showed a man who looked like Saakashvili packing a few belongings in plastic bags in a cluttered prison cell before being escorted out, walking unaided. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

'RESPECT HUMAN DIGNITY'

The ombudsman said the prison hospital's lack of equipment needed to treat Saakashvili "clearly violates the obligation of the state to respect human dignity".

"It should also be noted that Mikheil Saakashvili continues to be on hunger strike and he refuses to receive proper medication, medical care, minerals or vitamins necessary for the procedures of hunger strike," the statement said.

Saakashvili is the most prominent and divisive living figure in Georgia's post-Soviet history, having come to power via a peaceful "Rose Revolution" in 2003 and led the country into a disastrous war with Russia five years later.

His case has drawn thousands of his supporters on to the streets in recent weeks and raised political tensions in the country of 3.7 million people. The state security service accused him at the weekend of plotting a coup.

Georgian authorities have already said they will not pardon Saakashvili.

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Reporting by David Chkhikvishvili; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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