Protesters target Georgia leader over 'spy photographers'

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Georgian journalists angry about the case of three news photographers charged with spying for Russia rallied outside the presidency Thursday, accusing the country's leader of ordering the arrests.

Around 50 local journalists, blowing whistles and wearing T-shirts with the slogan "No pictures -- no democracy", lined up outside the gates of the presidential administration building.

"We are protesting here because these arrests were a political act by the president against the photographers," journalist Saba Tsitsikashvili told AFP at the latest in a series of rallies since the arrests a week ago.

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.

Saakashvili has denied any personal involvement in their arrests.

As the authorities attempt to ease public concerns and counter negative publicity, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze briefed foreign diplomats on the case Thursday.

"There is incontrovertible evidence which was the basis for the detention of these people," Vashadze told reporters.

"As for the speculation that the authorities are supposedly going to limit freedom of speech, it is ridiculous even to comment on that," he said.

The powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who rarely gives interviews, also held lengthy briefings for reporters on Wednesday, insisting that the evidence was solid because a wrongful prosecution could damage the government and the country's image.

The photographers have been put under two months' pre-trial detention and 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".

© 2011 AFP

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