For the second time running in less than a week, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on December 11 was again freed from Ukrainian state custody, but, this time, by a Kyiv judge who refused the state’s demand for Saakashvili’s house arrest on charges of criminal conspiracy.
“I think that this proves that you can’t prevail against logic, that they really wanted to isolate me from Ukrainian politics . . . They wanted to hide me from the people and to hide the people from me. In reality, it turned out exactly the opposite,” a beaming Saakashvili told reporters before setting off on a walk with supporters through downtown Kyiv, as car horns sounded congratulations.
Praising Judge Larisa Tsokol, a presidential appointee, for her “courage,” he claimed that her decision showed that “not everything is lost” yet in Ukraine.
The decision, delivered after a roughly eight-hour hearing, has once more caught the Ukrainian government off balance in its attempt to prove that the onetime Rose Revolution leader was allegedly trying to use anti-corruption protests to overthrow the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the behest of Russia.
Prosecutors have five days to appeal the court’s decision, which will be published on December 14.
During the hearing, the state had argued that the risk of Russia using Saakashvili’s “liquidation” to stir up disorder in Ukraine meant that the 49-year-old politician, leader of the Movement of New Forces, should be placed under house arrest while awaiting trial on charges of collaborating with a criminal group – a reference to his supposed financial cooperation with Sergei Kupchenko, a wanted businessman close to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who lives in exile in Russia.
Addressing the court, Saakashvili asserted that his imprisonment would be “a personal present for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” his longtime political adversary.
“The FSB never would have planned a better operation than the arrest of Saakashvili in Kyiv,” he said.
In remarks on the late-night talk show "Freedom of Speech," General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko stressed that the government would appeal the court's decision and bring in foreign experts to certify the validity of the audio-video recordings it had used to prosecute Saakashvili.
He claimed that he had once shared the former Georgian leader's vision for reform, but, as he put it, would "never make my peace with those who crossed the red line of the law, rob the state or take money from Moscow for the destabilization of the situation . . . "
Nonetheless, the government may well be reconsidering its strategy. A December 5 attempt by special forces to seize Saakashvili failed spectacularly when the opposition leader took to the rooftop of his Kyiv apartment building and rallied supporters to his rescue. After the crowd freed him from a police van, he went on to lead a protest camp set up outside the Ukrainian parliament. A police attack on the camp also failed to bring him in.
On December 8, the Ukrainian Security Services finally managed, under cover of darkness, to place him in a temporary detention facility after receiving a tipoff about his location in a friend’s apartment. In protest, he declared a non-stop hunger strike.
At this rate, what’s next in the case against Saakashvili is impossible -- and inadvisable -- to predict. But the politician’s own plans are clear.
Headed back to his protest camp outside of parliament, he's called on supporters to gather again this Sunday in Kyiv to show that their numbers are growing. "[T]he more of us there will be," he claimed, "the less time [the government] will have left.”
--Updated at 2:34am ET on December 12, 2017