NIGHTTIME HOUSE ARREST? Ukrainian court gives Saakashvili an unusual sentence
By Christina Pushaw
A Ukrainian appeals court handed down an unusual sentence in an unusual case last week. He sentenced the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakasvhili – who is now accused of attempting to overthrow the government of the Ukraine – to house arrest, but only between the hours of 10:00PM and 7:00AM.
With this decision, the judge gave General Prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko less than half of what he asked for.
Saakashvili has emerged as one of the most important figures in Ukraine’s democracy movement in recent months. This was unexpected, because from 2004 to 2013 he was the leader of another country. As president of the Republic of Georgia, he gained worldwide recognition as a dramatic—if sometimes heavy-handed—reformer, overhauling the country’s Soviet-era institutions with support from the West.
He retreated from Georgian politics after his party’s defeat in parliamentary elections, moving to the United States to teach at Tufts University. His return to Georgia became even more complicated when the government accused him of multiple criminal charges, which he has described as politically motivated. But he could not stray far from politics.
Ukraine’s “Maidan” Revolution in 2014 led to the election of his boyhood friend, Petro Poroshenko, as president of that country, and Saakashvili accepted Poroshenko’s invitation to advise him on democratic reforms. Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili as governor of the Odessa region, where Saakashvili unveiled an ambitious plan to root out corruption by transforming the customs process, professionalizing the police force, and replacing nepotism with meritocracy in the civil service.
The relationship soured by 2016, when Saakashvili, disappointed in Poroshenko’s seeming unwillingness to fight corruption, stepped down as governor and formed an opposition party. “Poroshenko did not actually want reform,” says Saakashvili’s former deputy in Odessa, Yulia Marushevska.
Now, as the leader of the Movement of New Forces, Saakashvili is pushing for Poroshenko’s impeachment, organizing massive anti-government rallies throughout the country of 44 million. These demonstrations strike a chord with Ukrainians who are concerned about persistent corruption—the number one reason for dissatisfaction with the government according to recent IRI polling.
General Prosecutor Lutsenko has been one of the most active government officials attempting to silence Saakashvili over the past few months and is currently seeking to extradite him to Georgia. Lutsenko is widely seen to be working at the behest of Poroshenko, who has sought to subdue the growing movement around Saakashvili.
In summer 2017, Saakashvili was stripped of Ukrainian citizenship and his presidential bodyguards, who were deported to Georgia. But the opposition leader has only amplified his criticism of Poroshenko, Lutsenko, and other government officials.
“It’s a clique of thieves,” Saakashvili said of the Ukrainian government in a recent interview on the international television news show, “Conflict Zone with Tim Sebastian.” “Ultimately, they’ll blow up this country.”
Saakashvili and other reform-oriented opposition leaders continue to organize massive demonstrations in Kiev, calling for Poroshenko’s impeachment. In late December, Poroshenko’s allies attempted to stage a counter-demonstration but attracted only a few supporters to Kiev’s main street.
And, while most Ukrainian politicians remain ensconced in Kiev, Saakashvili draws some of his most energetic crowds outside the capital. At a January town hall meeting in Odessa, hundreds of Saakashvili supporters turned up, shining flashlights to watch his speech after the power went out. Saakashvili claimed the power outage was an intentional sabotage attempt by Ukraine’s security service.The Ukrainian government rightly views Saakashvili’s anti-corruption crusade and grassroots popularity as a threat, experts say. As such, Saakashvili faces charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the government” and entering Ukraine illegally after his passport was revoked last summer. He denies all wrongdoing. His lawyers note that under Ukrainian law, it is illegal to strip a person of the only citizenship he has.
Saakashvili’s sentence of nighttime house arrest was certainly milder than it could have been. Regardless, Friday’s verdict prompted an outcry from Saakashvili’s supporters, hundreds of whom were crowded in and around the courtroom. “This is not a court,” said Saakashvili after the verdict was announced. “These [judges] are corrupt scumbags!”
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement Friday calling the legal proceedings against Saakashvili “concerning” and indicated that Ukraine’s actions might have repercussions in the important bilateral relationship with the United States. “I have repeatedly denounced governments who pursue politically motivated charges against any of their citizens,” wrote Menendez.
Saakashvili and his supporters have promised to continue organizing marches, and announced a major rally on February 4. He also indicated plans to install a TV studio in his flat, so he can continue reaching his supporters throughout Ukraine via live broadcasts on social media.
And he is keeping a sense of humor: just hours after the verdict, he posted the letter of support from Menendez on Facebook—at exactly 10:00 PM.
Photos by Iryna Fedorenko