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Georgia's PM resigns over move to arrest opposition leader

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Georgia's Prime Minister Press office via AP

FILE - In this file photo released on Oct. 31, 2020, by Georgia's Prime Minister Press Office, Georgia's Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, speaks to the media after voting at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi, Georgia. Gakharia announced his resignation Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 following a court ruling that ordered the arrest of a man who leads the ex-Soviet nation's top opposition party. (Georgian Prime Minister Press office via AP, File)

TBILISI – Georgia's prime minister announced his resignation Thursday following a court ruling that ordered the arrest of a man who leads the ex-Soviet nation's top opposition party.

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said in a televised address that he was stepping down because of disagreements within his own team over the decision to arrest Nika Melia, chairman of the United National Movement opposition party.

Gakharia said arresting the opposition leader could lead to further escalation of political crisis and threaten the well-being of the country’s citizens.

“Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue. I decided to resign,” the prime minister said.

A Tbilisi court on Wednesday ruled to place Melia, who is accused of organizing “mass violence” during anti-government protests in 2019, in pre-trial detention after he reused to pay an increased bail fee of $12,000. If convicted, Melia faces nine years in prison. He has rejected the charges as politically motivated.

Melia and his supporters from other opposition parties have vowed to resist the arrest, and he denounced the ruling as “unlawful.” According to the Interfax news agency, Melia remained in the Tbilisi headquarters of the United National Movement on Thursday, and police officers were unable to enter the office to apprehend him.

Following Gakharia’s announcement, Georgia's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it had temporarily postponed detaining Melia.

Melia said Gakharia's decision was “to be respected” but was unlikely to defuse political tensions in the country and called for an early parliamentary election.

A political crisis unfolded in Georgia after a parliamentary election in October, the results of which gave Georgia's ruling party the Georgian Dream a victory with 48% of the votes. The biggest opposition alliance, led by the United National Movement, placed second with 27%.

The opposition has refused to recognize the results of the vote as valid and demanded a rerun. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in protest for days after the election.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement expressing concern over developments in Georgia. Spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. urges the Georgian government "to reinforce its commitment to the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law by ensuring that its judicial and prosecutorial system is free of political bias.