Georgia arrests news photographers for 'spying'

7th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Georgia on Thursday arrested the personal photographer of President Mikheil Saakashvili and three photojournalists on accusations of spying for a foreign country, the interior ministry said.

Georgia did not name the country involved but its pro-Western administration has repeatedly accused arch foe Russia of running espionage operations on its territory, both before and after the war they fought in 2008.

The ministry said the four had been arrested for passing information "obtained because of their work to an organisation acting undercover for the intelligence services of a foreign country, against the interests of Georgia".

"Very serious charges will be put forward," Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze told AFP, saying that the investigation into the alleged espionage was still under way.

The four suspects include Saakashvili's personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze, whose pictures of the Georgian leader are often printed in the international media.

"I am convinced that my son is not a traitor," Gedenidze's mother Marika told Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2.

European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze, Foreign Ministry press centre photographer Giorgi Abdaladze, and Gedenidze's wife, local newspaper photographer Natia Gedenidze, are the others being held.

A photographer working for the Associated Press was also arrested overnight but was released without charge after being questioned.

Police have yet to release details of what information was allegedly passed to the foreign power.

Police seized computers and other equipment when they raided the suspects' homes, relatives quoted by local media said.

"They searched all the rooms, took the computers, my father's laptop and child's computer, also all cell phones of the family members, all compact discs," Giorgi Abdaladze's wife Nestan Neidze told the InterPressNews agency.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry building where the photographers were being held, one of them holding a poster comparing Saakashvili to Belarus's strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has repeatedly detained journalists.

The Russian foreign ministry said that the allegations were typical of the Saakashvili administration.

"This points to the level of democracy in Georgia, which has often been remarked upon by international organisations recently," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a news conference.

The arrests came a day after nine people including four Russian citizens were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 11 to 14 years for alleged involvement in a major Moscow-backed espionage network in Georgia.

Officials said the spy ring had provided secret information on the country's armed forces to the Russian military foreign intelligence service, the GRU, over a period of several years.

They said that the ring had been broken in a cloak-and-dagger operation that saw Georgian security services infiltrate the GRU through a former Soviet army officer working as a double agent.

In an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station on Wednesday, Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said that the case had undermined Russian spies' ability to operate in the country.

"It has become harder for Russian intelligence to work in Georgia, because we blocked important channels for receiving of information," he said, although he also predicted more espionage arrests in the future.

"I want to say that not all Russian agents and spies are detained yet," he said.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia have remained high since the 2008 war, with Tbilisi also accusing Moscow of organising a series of bomb blasts on targets including the US embassy last year and an alleged plot to set off explosives at a NATO office in the capital in June.

Moscow has dismissed the claims, accusing the Saakashvili administration of being anti-Russian.

© 2011 AFP

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