Georgia rejects criticism of 'spy photographers' case

13th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Georgian officials on Wednesday dismissed concerns about the case of three photojournalists charged with spying for Russia, saying they had real evidence of links to Moscow's espionage services.

"Even one single case that is not backed by serious proof could seriously damage Georgia and the current administration's standing," Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told reporters.

The suspects, who include pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer, are accused of collecting confidential material on the Georgian leader that was passed to Russian military intelligence.

Merabishvili said he could prove long-term contacts between Russian officers and the alleged kingpin of the spy ring, European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze.

"We have enough evidence that Kurtsikidze was in contact since 2004 with people we have established to be officers of the Russian military intelligence agency," Merabishvili added.

He showed reporters what he said were telephone company records allegedly detailing repeated contacts between Kurtsikidze and the officers.

The interior ministry has previously stated that documents clearly marked as secret and detailing Saakashvili's movements were found when the men were detained in overnight raids by counter-intelligence police last week.

The arrests caused widespread unease in Georgia's media community, with journalists holding a series of protests in recent days calling for the case, which has been classified as secret, to be opened up to public scrutiny.

After concerns were also raised by Western diplomats, the Georgian prosecutor announced on Wednesday that the trial would be largely open.

"The prosecutor's office has petitioned the court to exclude from the public hearings only the minor parts of evidence which include state secrets," a statement said.

The photographers have been put under two months' pre-trial detention. They could face up to 12 years in jail if convicted.

Ex-Soviet Georgia fought a war with neighbour Russia in 2008 and has regularly accused Moscow of running espionage operations on its territory.

Moscow has branded the latest arrests as symptoms of "anti-Russian hysteria".

Merabishvili however insisted that Georgia, which is seeking to escape the Kremlin's influence and join Western institutions like NATO, was a genuine target.

"This is not hysteria, everyone knows that Russian secret services are actively working against Georgia," he said.

Merabishvili also briefed a delegation of Georgian journalists who had protested over the case, while their colleagues gathered outside the ministry, some wearing T-shirts bearing the words "No pictures -- no democracy".

"We are still concerned because no additional proof was presented at the meeting," journalist Shorena Shaverdashvili told AFP after the briefing.

© 2011 AFP

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