Georgian police have stormed the party offices of opposition leader Nika Melia using tear gas and detained him early on Tuesday, just days after the prime minister resigned over a disagreement on whether to arrest him or not.
Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM), has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019. Live television footage showed Melia being dragged from his party headquarters.
Meanwhile, hundreds of riot police used tear gas against his supporters and the leaders of the country's opposition parties, who have been camped out in the building since Wednesday, Mtavari TV live pictures showed.
Several opposition supporters were also detained.
Melia charged with 'organizing mass violence'
Melia has been arrested in a case related to anti-government demonstrations in 2019. He was charged with "organizing mass violence" during the protests and faces up to nine years in prison.
Melia, 41, has rejected the case as politically motivated.
Last week, a court in Tbilisi ordered Melia be placed in pre-trial detention after he refused to pay an increased bail fee.
Arrest prompts warnings from allies
News of the police action sparked outrage among the opposition and warnings from the ex-Soviet country's Western allies.
"Shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning," British ambassador Mark Clayton wrote on Twitter. "Violence and chaos in Tbilisi are the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all sides to act with restraint, now and in the coming days."
Matthew Bryza, a senior fellow at a US think tank Atlantic Council, told the AFP news agency that the arrest pointed to Georgia's "backward movement in terms of democracy."
Under the leadership of ruling party Georgian Dream, it has reached the point where "opposition parties say they can't take their seats in parliament because the democratic system in Georgia is broken."
The United States Embassy in Georgia also condemned the arrest, noting that it was "deeply concerned by the government's decision" to detain Melia.
"Force and aggression are not the solution to resolving Georgia's political differences. Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations."
Case deepens political divide in Georgia
Opposition parties denounced the polls as rigged after the Georgian Dream party claimed victory. Their members have refused to take up their seats in the new parliament and demanded a new poll.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned over plans to arrest Melia. Gakharia said his decision had been prompted by a disagreement with his own team over the order to detain Melia.
Gakharia had said that Melia's detention was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions.
sri, lc/msh (Reuters, AFP)