Georgia frees photographers convicted of spying

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A Georgian court Friday dramatically freed four photojournalists convicted of spying for enemy Russia after handing them suspended sentences in a case that shocked the media community.

The four, who include pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal photographer, were freed on probation after pleading guilty to passing confidential data from state agencies to Russian military intelligence in a high-profile case that caused widespread controversy.

They said they accepted the evidence against them but were released under a plea bargain agreed with prosecutors earlier.

"The convicted can now be freed from the courtroom," said judge Zviad Esebua.

There were emotional scenes as the accused walked from the dock and sat down with their colleagues on the court benches, where some of their friends burst into tears and embraced them.

Presidential photographer Irakli Gedenidze, foreign ministry photographer Giorgi Abdaladze and European Pressphoto Agency employee Zurab Kurtsikidze were detained in overnight raids earlier this month.

At the time, police said they had found secret documents including minutes of high-level meetings stored on computers.

Kurtsikidze received a three-year suspended sentence and Abdaladze and Gedenidze received four-year suspended terms each, a Georgian government statement said.

Gedenidze's wife Natia, also a photographer, who had initially been detained with the others but was was released after questioning, received a one-and-a-half-year suspended term, the government said.

Irakli Gedenidze told AFP after his release: "I plan to continue my life," without saying more.

Abdaladze said simply: "I am just exhausted and I want to go home."

All the accused told the judge they had not been pressured or mistreated in custody.

Earlier a statement from the prosecutor's office said a plea-bargain deal had been agreed because the accused had pleaded guilty and given the authorities "information of particular importance for our national security" about Russian intelligence operations in Georgia.

US ally Georgia fought a war with neighbour Russia in 2008 and has regularly accused Moscow of running spy operations on its territory.

The prosecutor's statement said that during the investigation, the photographers had revealed the identities of Russian spies working in the country as well as the names of their Georgian collaborators and cover organisations operating on behalf of Moscow.

In court, the prosecutor also accused them of passing information on Georgian troop movements during the war to Moscow.

"In 2008 during the war they were taking photographs of the location of the army and submitting it with other information to (Russian) intelligence services," prosecutor Robert Grigalashvili said.

The case has shocked Georgia's media community and journalists have held daily solidarity rallies, wearing T-shirts with slogans saying "No Photographs -- No Democracy" and raising doubts about the confessions.

One of the organisers of the protests described the result as a victory but said that he still had serious doubts about the case.

"We happy that they were released but unhappy that they had to admit they were guilty. Even so, we still believe they are not," newspaper editor Dito Tikharadze told reporters outside the court.

The authorities however have repeatedly insisted that this is an espionage case based on strong proof and has no connection to the men's journalistic work.

Moscow has branded the spy arrests as symptoms of "anti-Russian hysteria" within the Georgian administration, which has angered the Kremlin by seeking to join Western institutions like NATO.

© 2011 AFP

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