Opposition parties called for major demonstrations in Georgia Tuesday after a leading political figure was arrested in an early morning raid on his party headquarters, deepening a spiralling political crisis following disputed parliamentary elections last year.
Hundreds of riot police used tear gas against Nika Melia's supporters who were camped out at his United National Movement headquarters in Tbilisi before the opposition leader was arrested and placed in pre-trail detention.
The raid sparked swift condemnation from the US and UK embassies in Georgia, mounting fears over the country's fragile democracy.
Scores of his supporters were also detained in the overnight raid and the leader of opposition Lelo party called for "a peaceful, unwavering struggle to defend Georgian democracy".
"Liberation of political prisoners and snap parliamentary elections are the only possible way from the crisis," Mamuka Khazaradze said, speaking to journalists on behalf of all opposition leaders.
He urged supporters to gather outside government headquarters to protest Melia's arrest.
The United States Embassy in Georgia said in a statement it was "deeply concerned by the government's decision to detain the head of a major opposition political party."
"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."
British ambassador Mark Clayton wrote on Twitter he was "shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning".
But Georgia's interior ministry defended the raid, saying "police used proportional force and special means".
'Broken democracy' -
Georgia has been in the grip of a political crisis since parliamentary elections in October, which opposition parties slammed as rigged after the ruling Georgian Dream party claimed narrow victory.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned over Georgian Dream's plans to arrest Melia.
Last week, a court in Tbilisi ordered Melia to be placed in pre-trial detention after he refused to pay an increased bail fee ahead of hearings in a case related to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
He has been charged with "organising mass violence" during the protests and faces up to nine years in prison.
Supporters had been camped out at his party headquarters last week until the raid Tuesday.
Melia, 41, rejects the case as politically motivated.
The detention order has raised the stakes in the crisis over the disputed elections.
Opposition members have refused to take up their seats in the new parliament, in a boycott that weighs heavily on the ruling party's political legitimacy.
They have also demanded a new poll.
Georgia's new Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who was confirmed by parliament on Monday, said in an address to lawmakers his government would proceed with Melia's arrest, saying the politician "will not manage to hide from justice".
Garibashvili is a loyal lieutenant of the powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili who is widely seen as the man in charge in Georgia, despite having no official political role.
Analysts said the political crisis in Georgia has serious consequences for the fledgling democracy and is unlikely to be resolved without a greater diplomatic engagement from Tbilisi's Western allies.
Matthew Bryza, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council US think tank said Georgia's "backward movement in terms of democracy" under Georgian Dream reached the point where "opposition parties say they can't take their seats in parliament because the democratic system in Georgia is broken".
"Without a greater Western mediation, the situation could become very dangerous," said the former diplomat, who had coordinated the US Caucasus policy in the administration of ex-president George W. Bush.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream has seen its popularity fall over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on commitments to democracy.
Critics accuse the country's richest man Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests permeate politics.