Ukraine sends Georgian ambassador home amid warnings ex-President Saakashvili could die in jail

Mikheil Saakashvili must not be allowed to die behind bars, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned, as new photographs reveal the toll the former Georgian leader’s long-running hunger strike is having on his health.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, Zelenskyy said Saakashvili, who is serving a six-year prison sentence in Georgia, is now at risk of being “killed by Russia at the hands of Georgian authorities.” Saakashvili was the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2013. He was stripped of his Georgian passport in 2015 after becoming a Ukrainian citizen — and the governor of Odesa.

Kyiv has summoned the Georgian ambassador and asked him to leave Ukraine within 48 hours for talks with his own government. Zelenskyy’s intervention came after pictures emerged from a court hearing in Tbilisi that showed Saakashvili looking emaciated and gravely ill.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the move was “extremely harsh” but “the Georgian government deserves it,” according to local media. He added that the Georgian authorities “really want him to die.”

A Georgian court convicted Saakashvili in absentia in 2018 of abusing his authority. The former president was detained after secretly returning to Georgia from Ukraine in 2021, while still serving as the head of Zelenskyy’s National Reform Council.

Saakashvili’s lawyers say the charges against him are politically motivated and are calling for the sentence to be commuted so he can seek medical care abroad. He has refused to eat in protest at his treatment on and off since his arrest.

Saakashvili was the Georgian president during the 2008 war with Russia, which saw Moscow-backed forces supporting local separatists take control of his country’s South Ossetia region. Saakashvili resisted the presence of the Kremlin’s troops in Georgia, and sought support from Western nations. Around 20 percent of Georgia is currently occupied by the Kremlin’s troops and their local allies.

According to a statement from Saakashvili’s former defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, “most neutral observers recognise his imprisonment for what it is: a grotesque abuse of power, designed only to protect Russian interests in the region.”

Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has presided over closer economic and political relations with Moscow in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The European Council on Foreign Relations says oligarch and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder, “may be attempting to manoeuvre Georgia into Russia’s sphere of influence.”

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