Third Georgian photographer 'confesses to spying'

19th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

The alleged ringleader of three Georgian photojournalists accused of spying for enemy Russia has confessed to involvement in espionage, both officials and his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official at Georgia's interior ministry said the alleged kingpin of the spy ring, European Pressphoto Agency photographer Zurab Kurtsikidze, had become the third of the trio to admit guilt.

"All three have now confessed," the official told AFP.

Kurtsikidze's lawyer confirmed that he had confessed but raised questions about whether the entire body of evidence was enough to convict him.

"My defendant has made a confession, but apart from this confession, the prosecution's evidence is not strong enough to substantiate his guilt," lawyer Nino Andriashvili told AFP.

In a case that has caused widespread concerns, the three photographers have been charged with collecting confidential material on Georgia's pro-Western administration, including details of high-level meetings, that was allegedly sent to Russian military intelligence.

The authorities have already released videotaped testimony from the other two suspects, President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer Irakli Gedenidze and Foreign Ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze, admitting passing on pictures and sensitive documents to Kurtsikidze.

However a lawyer who was present when Abdaladze gave his testimony said on Monday that she believed that he had only confessed "under psychological pressure" after previously declaring his innocence.

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 spy operations on its territory.

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

The case has shocked Georgia's media community, and local journalists have been holding daily protests, wearing T-shirts with the slogan "No pictures -- no democracy".

Several independent and pro-opposition newspapers have also replaced photographs on their pages with blank spaces and the word "Protest".

About 50 Russian photographers wearing T-shirts with slogans like "I am a photographer, not a spy" also demonstrated Tuesday outside the Moscow embassy of Switzerland, which represents Russia's interests in Tbilisi as the neighbours have not had full diplomatic relations since the 2008 war.

Georgian officials have repeatedly insisted that the alleged spies were not targeted because of their journalistic activities.

Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze reasserted on Monday that there was "very strong evidence" against them and that some media critics were raising "absolutely unfounded questions".

© 2011 AFP

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