Thousands rally in Georgia as opposition leader faces arrest

Protesters waive the EU, Georgian, right, and American flags during a motorcade rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday. — AFP

TBILISI — Thousands of people rallied in Georgia on Tuesday as prosecutors said they would arrest an opposition leader over mass anti-government protests that have rocked the Caucasus nation for almost a week.

The Tbilisi protests erupted after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker's seat, a controversial move in a country where ties with Moscow remain strained after a brief war in 2008.

Since then the rallies, which erupted on Thursday, have morphed into a broader movement against billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, widely believed to be calling the shots in the country as leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

On Tuesday, prosecutors said they had charged Nika Melia, an opposition MP and a leader of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement party (UNM) with organizing "mass violence" outside parliament building.

The office of Georgia's Prosecutor General said in a statement that it has "appealed to parliament to strip Melia of a parliamentarian's immunity from prosecution and place him in a pre-trial detention."

If found guilty, Melia could face up to nine years behind bars.

More than 20 opposition parties issued a statement denouncing Melia's announced arrest as "political persecution and start of repressions against the opposition."

On Tuesday evening, thousands of protesters gathered for the sixth consecutive day in front of Georgia's parliament building, demanding the resignation of the interior minister whom they accuse of using excessive force against largely peaceful rally.

On Thursday, protesters briefly attempted to storm parliament building, but were pushed back by police and the rally continued peacefully until riot police used rubber bullets and tear gas, injuring scores of demonstrators.

Ivanishvili has accused opposition leaders of inciting protesters to storm parliament — a claim they have denied. — AFP