Georgian news photographers 'spied for Russia'
Three Georgian photojournalists, including the president's personal photographer, have been charged with espionage for allegedly giving secret data to enemy Russia, officials said Saturday.
The interior ministry alleged that confidential documents, plans and pictures gathered by the photographers were passed to military intelligence agency officers from pro-Western Georgia's arch foe Russia.
President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze, foreign ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze were arrested in overnight raids Thursday.
"The investigation has concluded that Zurab Kurtsikidze had links with the defence ministry intelligence services of the Russian Federation," an interior ministry statement said.
It said that Gedenidze and Abdaladze took photographs of secret documents that they accessed through their work for the state, which Kurtsikidze then sent to Moscow.
Georgia fought a war with Russia in 2008 and has repeatedly accused Moscow of running espionage operations on its territory.
The ministry said counter-intelligence officers found confidential information about the president's movements, details of his meetings and plans of his administration building when the photographers' homes were searched.
The interior ministry website posted a video recording of Gedenidze's statement to police, in which he said he had given photographs to Kurtsikidze but had done so under pressure.
"I realised it was something to do with special services and my suspicion was further strengthened because I knew he was sending the photographs to (a photographic agency in) Moscow," Gedenidze said in the recording.
Police surveillance tapes of telephone calls between the photographers discussing payments were also released by the ministry.
But Frankfurt-based EPA that employs Kurtsikidze and has a bureau in Moscow said it believed the authorities had misinterpreted innocent conversations about payments for photographs.
"They decided this could be a spy ring but of course it is far, far away from that," EPA's editor-in-chief Cengiz Seren told AFP, adding that Kurtsikidze occasionally bought pictures from the other men for the agency.
He said the allegations were "very easily provable false" and that he would send evidence from the agency to the Georgian authorities next week.
The three suspects were placed under pre-trial detention for two months by a court in Tbilisi Saturday after being charged in the early hours of the morning, and could face up to 12 years in jail.
Lawyers for the men said they had told the court that they were innocent.
The case has been classified as 'secret' by the authorities, but one of the suspects, Giorgi Abdaladze, managed to pass on a handwritten statement to Georgian media.
"I appeal to all journalists who care about establishing the truth about this unjust action against free media perpetrated by the authorities: do not surrender, and do not allow another lawless act," Abdaladze said in the statement.
Gedenidze's wife Natia, a local newspaper photographer, was also arrested on Thursday but has since been released.
Gedenidze had close access to Saakashvili, travelling alongside him regularly, and his pictures were widely published in the international media.
But the Georgian leader has denied ordering the arrests and his administration has stated that the photographers' detention was not related to their journalistic work.
Journalists at the interior ministry briefing on Saturday were visibly shocked by the allegations that their colleagues had worked for Russia, and a few openly shed tears as they read the press statement.
Rights organisations have raised concerns about the potential impact of the case on media freedom.
"The authorities obviously have a duty to protect national interests but the current fear of spies in Georgia must not be allowed to fuel a climate of intimidation in the media," campaign group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on Friday.
© 2011 AFP